Colorado Sun

Colorado Sun



Sunriser: Colorado’s worst-in-the-nation vaccination rate, fancy spa reborn as fancy rehab, digging into lobbying and much more

Compiled by Eric Lubbers, eric@coloradosun.com
CTO/Newsletter Wrangler, @brofax

And all of a sudden, it’s Friday. I hope you had a satisfying, productive week and, more importantly, that you have plans to make the most of your weekend, even if that means doing absolutely nothing for 48 consecutive hours. We had a heck of a busy week on the news front (if you missed anything, you can catch up by scanning the last few Sunrisers here) and all of us on staff just want to say thanks for reading and sharing our stories, with extra special thanks to those of you who have become members.

If you haven’t taken the plunge yet, memberships start at just $5 a month (with perks for higher tiers) and it’s one of the most direct ways you can help bolster local journalism here in Colorado. Just head to coloradosun.com/join to get started.

Every dollar we take in goes directly toward the journalism we produce.

OK, enough chatter. Let’s blend this smoothie already, shall we?

 


 

>> ABOVE THE FOLD  

 

Cordillera resort to reopen as a tony drug-treatment facility for a “seriously underserved population” — the very rich

$40,000 per month

That is a big number. But what if I told you that $40,000 a month is actually the low end of the cost spectrum for the addiction recovery program coming to the former Cordillera Lodge and Spa outside of Vail? (You may remember Cordillera as the site where a 19-year-old concierge accused Kobe Bryant of sexual assault.) There are so many fascinating — and jaw-dropping — angles in Jason Blevins’ excellent breakdown of the battle waged between the developers of the rehab clinic, a handful of neighbors and the rest of the Vail Valley that I can’t sum them up here. You will not regret reading this whole story, even if you’re not in the tax bracket that can afford $120,000 a month to get a room in the lodge’s private mansion.

>> Read Jason’s story, including how many jobs the facility will create (not counting the models hired to film a commercial) and much more, here.

 

Colorado is dead last in MMR vaccination rates. One lawmaker’s push to fix that has an unexpected opponent: Jared Polis

 

Click image to see the full-size chart.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that populations that fall below 95 percent vaccination rates for measles are at risk for outbreaks, like the 17 that the U.S. experienced last year. Colorado’s kindergartners have the lowest rate of MMR vaccinations in the country at 88.7 percent, largely because of the state’s loose policy around “personal exemptions” to vaccines. Rep. Kyle Mullica, D-Northglenn, who works as an ER nurse, is sponsoring legislation to remove all non-medical exemptions in Colorado to match other states, but he’s receiving opposition not just from conservatives and vaccine critics, but from Gov. Polis.

>> Read John Frank’s breakdown of the numbers and the political fight ahead here.

 

Lobbying is big money in Colorado, but tracking the real spending is difficult

5-to-1

That’s the ratio of official lobbyists to lawmakers under the dome at the Colorado Capitol. Our political finance contributor Sandra Fish took a deep dive into the lobbying numbers from the past five years at the statehouse, explaining how lobbying works, who is doing it and why tracking the actual amount of influence spending is hard to do in Colorado.

>> Get your crash course in Colorado lobbying here.

 

He fled China 30 years ago in search of the American dream. Now, he helps others build a better life in Greeley.

 

Yukwan “Nick” Lee smiles as he talks with friend and tenant Richard Nolan while visiting on Feb. 5 in downtown Greeley. Nolan has rented his space from Lee since 1982. (Josh Polson, Special to The Colorado Sun)

It’s so nice to write about good news every once in a while. Contributor Dan England has a really uplifting story about Yukwan “Nick” Lee, a man who literally jumped off a cliff to escape China in the ’80s and landed in Greeley, where he’s made a life out of helping his friends and neighbors.

>> Click here to read Nick’s inspiring story and be ready to put a smile on your face.

 


 

>> DON’T MISS  

“This accident is especially tragic because this person didn’t trigger the avalanche.”
— Ethan Greene, Colorado Avalanche Information Center
  • An avalanche, triggered by out-of-bounds snowboarders on a slope above Telluride, killed 47-year-old Salvador Garcia-Atance as he skied on a well-traveled trail below. Garcia-Atance became Colorado’s fifth avalanche death of the season and the third in four days.
  • The effort to tie Colorado’s Electoral College vote to the national popular vote is headed to Gov. Polis’ desk. As Jesse Paul writes, the effort is notable politically because it’s the first marquee policy to sail through the legislature without a single Republican in support, despite polling that shows bipartisan support.
  • Yeesh. 50 million gallons of polluted water pours out of mine sites around the country every day, including in Colorado.

>> THE FUN STUFF

// Drew Litton tells the tale of two incomes (in Denver’s housing market).

// Jim Morrissey takes on private prisons.

// In this week’s What’d I Miss?, Myra remembers when the word “followers” was reserved for cult leaders. (Weekly reminder: Go back and start this strip from the beginning. You’ll enjoy it, I promise.)

BOOKS!

Colorado journalist Ian Neligh is this week’s SunLit featured author and his book, “Gold! Madness, Murder, and Mayhem in the Colorado Rockies” is a creepy, cool look into the history of Colorado’s gold rush and, intriguingly, the people still caught up in the fervor. Oh, and bats. Lots of bats. Read an interview with Neligh here and check out a bat-filled excerpt from “Gold!” here.

CUBA!

A scene from the El Capitolio neighborhood of Havana, Cuba, in December 2018. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

The nation of Cuba is slowly and jerkily opening up to Americans. Our own Jesse Paul toured the country with his family and came back with a lot of thoughts on a country both stuck in the past and hopeful about the future (and a lot of great photos).

JOHN FRANK’S BEER PICK!

The Brut IPA is growing in popularity for a reason. The beer is light in body, making it drinkable,  but still offers a tropical hop aroma and flavor that can satisfy folks who like — and don’t like — hoppy beers. The easiest to find is New Belgium’s Brut IPA, which is only available for a few more weeks, but you can find smaller brewers experimenting with the style, too.

 


 

>> THE SHORTLIST

// Vic Lombardi, the bombastic broadcaster who has been a constant presence in Denver sports for decades, has prostate cancer. Nick Kosmider has a wonderfully written piece on Lombardi’s life, career and what the diagnosis did to his outlook. // The Athletic 🔑

// 🏰⛰🔜💩+ ♻ = 💧(link) // The Denver Channel

// I’ll admit it. During my trip to Akumal in December, I did a lot of daydreaming about buying the cheapest condo in town and internationally telecommuting to work. That said, I am not a newly elected La Plata County commissioner like Clyde Church, who attended his first month of meetings from sunny Playa Del Carmen. // Durango Herald

// I still haven’t seen “Green Book” — I have a feeling this 2016 episode of 99 Percent Invisible is a more informative take on the subject — but Colorado Public Radio has a fascinating look at some of the Colorado places that were in the original “travel bible” for black Americans, including Winks Lodge at Lincoln Hills, west of Eldorado Springs, the only African-American resort in the West. // CPR News

// Ice climbing (we’ve reported on both the gym-rat version and the real thing down in Ouray) is coming to downtown Denver this weekend, and it looks like the Russians are large and in charge. // The Colorado Sun, Rock and Ice

// There seems to be a belief among some urban dog owners that snow contains a magic enzyme that will evaporate dog poop, evidenced by the fresh crop of mummified, uh, remains that show up after every thaw. That said, this threatening sign posted in my neighborhood is an extremely uncool way to deal with what is a real inconvenience. // The Denver Channel

// Here is a fascinating piece about Warren Washington, a researcher from Boulder who has been sounding the alarm on climate change for decades while dealing with racism in academia. Washington was just awarded the Tyler Prize, the environmental version of the Nobel Prize, and he talked about it on Colorado Matters. // Forbes, CPR News

// Rep. Jason Crow was denied entry at the GEO Group immigration detention facility in Aurora on Wednesday after reports of another viral outbreak in the facility. // Aurora Sentinel

// From Sun contributor Sandra Fish: “Younger Colorado students seek access to mental health care, without parental permission// Chalkbeat Colorado

// There has already been a lot of ink spilled about the alleged hoax perpetrated by Jussie Smollett. But consider this a reminder that for each hoax, there are literally 500 real hate crimes. And it’s not some distant problem: the number of hate groups in Colorado is growing. // Quartz, The Denver Post

// The idea of a community of 50,000 people between Boulder and Longmont that bans cars and is bicycle-friendly sounds like a utopia/fever dream. But please, please somebody workshop the name so it doesn’t end up being called “Cyclocroft, Colorado.” // Forbes

>> TODAY’S THING

 

The Thing: Bar Keepers Friend (available at most grocery stores, just look on the lower shelves in the cleaning aisle)

Why You Might Like It: I’ve been cooking seriously for about eight years now, since my mid-20s, when my wallet, taste buds and digestive system finally ganged up to tell me to stop going out for every meal. I’m just now confident enough to cook most of my staple meals without obsessively checking a recipe, so I’ve been slowly upgrading the equipment in my tiny kitchen. The new star player on the team is a big, heavy tri-ply stainless steel pan my parents got me for Christmas that has been used at least five times a week since Dec. 26. It’s awesome. But it’s also stainless steel, and from the first time I gently laid salmon into some hot oil, it went from pristine to “mosaic of scorch marks” almost instantly. Enter Bar Keepers Friend. My pan gets a scrub from the powder — manufactured with the same formula for 137 years and counting — once a week and it might be one of the most satisfying cleaning experiences around. It takes a little elbow grease, but the pan looks ready for a catalog photo shoot every time. And there are apparently a bunch of other uses I haven’t tried yet to boot!

Editor’s note: Every Sunriser will include one … thing … to cap off our time together. The Thing will be just about anything, like a TV show or a book or a particularly cool dog toy. Got a suggestion? Email things@coloradosun.com and you could get published in a Sunriser!

 


 

You’ve reached the end of The Sunriser and, depending on your schedule, you’re nearing the end of your week. Thanks for reading and thanks in advance for helping get our stories out into your networks.

Go have a great weekend. That’s an order. See you on Monday.

Eric



Cordillera resort to reopen as tony drug-treatment facility for “seriously underserved population” — the wealthy

EDWARDS — They are already gathering in the quiet room, where a glass wall reveals the arresting New York Range. Sitting in a circle of chairs, the therapists at All Points North Lodge are counseling the ailing as dozens of workers next door scramble to build a one-of-a-kind addiction treatment facility in the heart of the Eagle Valley.

“This will be the new model. The best-of-the-best in terms of behavioral health and integrated care,” said Jeff Brooks, the soft-spoken behavioral scientist and addiction therapist tasked with developing an addiction-treatment program for a 72-room luxury facility inside what was a once a five-star resort hotel. “It’s definitely a new vision for integrating biological, psychological, social and spiritual care under one roof.”

Therapists have already began to gather in a quiet meeting room at All Points North Lodge at Cordillera, even as renovations continue to convert the posh spa and hotel into an holistic addiction treatment facility. All Points recently received its addiction treatment certification two weeks ago and are aiming to open doors to locals in the sober living community on April 1. (Nina Riggio, Special to The Colorado Sun)

It’s a long, winding road past the guarded gatehouse to the 69,000-square-foot lodge that stands like a castle atop the Cordillera community. Noah Nordheimer knows it well, both literally and figuratively.

The investor and recovering addict whose struggle with pain medication after an injury spurred him to build a thriving public-service treatment program in Baltimore, Maryland, has spent several years laboring to buy and convert the former Cordillera Lodge & Spa into a drug addiction treatment center. The journey has seen him navigating and winning four lawsuits filed by irked homeowners lamenting the loss of their resort community’s centerpiece. Now he’s corralled deep-pocketed investors and is building what he promises will be the most progressive approach to stemming the country’s addiction crisis.

“It took a while for us to get here, but now we are focusing on people’s health,” Nordheimer said. “Many of our guests are coming to us because they have a dependence to a substance or a behavioral health issue that they want us to help solve. We are not looking at these things in a silo. We are looking at overall health, from nutrition to fitness to primary and preventative care needs. I really think this place is going to do a lot of people a lot of good.”

The plan is big. Nordheimer and his investors are spending $136 million on the project, starting with a $20 million renovation of the lodge, which opened in 1988 and was made famous — or rather infamous — in 2003 when a 19-year-old concierge accused basketball superstar Kobe Bryant of sexual assault following an encounter at the tony hotel.

The project involves converting the 56-room hotel into a 72-room, 110-patient treatment center with a mix of single- and double-occupancy rooms.

Brooks’ team has signed a long-term lease on a 10,000-square-foot mansion that will house six patients in a more intimate therapeutic environment. Plans are underway to develop additional acreage below the lodge into what they call an “all-inclusive, holistic healthcare campus,” for patients who have graduated from more intensive care. When the renovation is complete, the lodge will employ about 100 people full-time, making it one of the larger private employers in the region.

Projects like All Points North Lodge help diversify Eagle County’s economy with high-paying jobs that attract and retain skilled workers, said Chris Romer, the head of the Vail Valley Partnership.

“Construction also remains a large part of our economy and requires a vibrant economy across all other sectors – from tourism to medical to outdoor recreation – to continue to thrive,” Romer said. “The issues seem to have been well vetted through the public process and the court system, and we hope the Eagle County community welcomes and embraces them moving forward.”

The lodge’s evidence-based addiction recovery program — meaning it deploys a science-based intervention with health, fitness, medicine and psychiatry, versus the traditional 12-step approach — is targeting high-level executives, athletes, musicians and entertainment superstars, with prices ranging from more than $40,000 a month for double-occupancy to $120,000 a month for spots in the private home. A second-track — called the day sober-living program — offers sessions for local patients in recovery.

“Holistic and integrated care are words we frequently use here,” explains All Points North Chief Operating Officer Jeff Brooks, who has been clean and sober for 27 years. “Our model we’re forging is one of the first of its kind because it a more synthesized way of treating patients– all under one roof.” (Nina Riggio, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Brooks said there is a “seriously underserved population” of wealthy people struggling with addiction.

“A lot of market research shows that there is a strong demand for this type of service,” Brooks said, noting All Points North Lodge’s five-star hotel services offered alongside behavioral health addiction treatment “in an area that provides the amenity level, but also enough seclusion to offer privacy and discretion.”  

Five lawsuits

Residents of Cordillera — which spans several communities across 7,000 mountainous acres above the Eagle Valley — fought for three years to block Nordheimer, filing five lawsuits in federal and state courtrooms. Their arguments included a $100 million class-action lawsuit arguing the rehab center would hurt property values in the remote, gated community where stone-and-beam palaces sell for many millions.

The fight centered on the loss of a community asset that suffered in the recession. Texas investment firm Behringer Harvard spent $35 million for the Cordillera Lodge & Spa in 2007. Firm founder Robert Behringer promised a renovation of the lodge when he announced his purchase, calling the upscale golf resort on 23.2 acres — which includes adjacent land intended for 19 more lodging units — “a unique and irreplaceable asset” and a “jewel in the mountains.

The Cordillera Lodge and Spa, where rooms rented for more than $900 a night, was described as a unique and irreplaceable asset by a buyer who renovated it after he purchased it for $35 million in 2007. Two years later, Cordillera’s planning agreement was amended to include medical uses and in 2013, the posh complex was offered for sale again. In 2016, it was sold to Concerted Care Group for $9.6 million. (Nina Riggio, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Those were heady times in the resort real estate world, with buyers spending record amounts on homes. The 2007-08 home sales in the Colorado mountains hit highs that linger today. But the boom didn’t last.

By 2009, the economy was withering and the high-end real estate market collapsed. That year Behringer approached the county with amendments to Cordillera’s Planned Unit Development guide, hoping to weather the downturn by expanding the potential uses of the struggling lodge to include 34 options, including office space and medical facilities. The county approved the amendment and Behringer, which renovated the lodge in 2008, put the property on the market in 2013, after membership to the Cordillera golf club declined to 53 residents, occupancy at the lodge plummeted and Cordillera real estate activity stalled.

Behringer called Nordheimer’s Baltimore-based Concerted Care Group the “only serious” buyer that looked at the property. In 2016, CCG bought the lodge and surrounding acreage for $9.6 million. That’s when residents noticed the 2009 PUD amendment allowed for an addiction-treatment center. They railed against the plan, challenging the county’s approval of the amendment in Colorado federal district court, Eagle County District Court and, most recently in the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. They lost every challenge.  

Residents expected the lodge would be redeveloped, said Rachel Oys, the general manager of the Cordillera Property Owners Association and Cordillera Metropolitan District, both of which joined several local homeowners in the five lawsuits seeking to stop the rehab center plan.

Oys said her boards disagree with “several points” in the Court of Appeals opinion, but they are glad to see the court confirm that “inpatient uses” are not allowed. The issue gets into some semantics here, because the investors behind All Points North Lodge refer to it as a “residential outpatient facility,” separated into distinct parts with a clinic and hotel-like rooms.  
The Court of Appeals’ November decision focused on that word, “inpatient.” The court noted that Eagle County’s commissioners — who forbid inpatient use of the clinic portion of the lodge following homeowner appeals of its 2009 PUD amendment — determined the project fit into allowed uses because it planned an outpatient facility with a separate residential component. Homeowners argued the two separate uses constitute inpatient use. The appeals court declined to overturn the lower court’s support of the county approval for the rehab center, ruling the homeowners can argue the alleged zoning issue to the board of commissioners if they think All Points North Lodge violates the regulations.

Nordheimer, through his CSMN Investments, in October 2017 sued several Cordillera homeowners and their two associations, arguing the residents violated the Americans with Disabilities Act as well as fair housing and anti-discrimination laws in their opposition to the development of the former hotel.

U.S. District Court Judge Raymond Moore on Feb. 12 dismissed all but one of Nordheimer’s claims, ruling the homeowners were immune to liability. On the final claim — that the homeowners and their associations violated fair housing rules — Moore ruled CSMN’s “complaint contains no specific allegations that any defendant coerced, intimidated or threatened anyone, or that any defendant interfered with anyone’s rights protected under the FHA” and granted the Cordillera residents’ motion to dismiss.

The $20 million renovation of the Cordillera Lodge & Spa into a drug addiction treatment center began in July 2018. The work included converting a 56-room hotel into 72 single- and double-occupancy rooms that will accommodate as many as 110 people seeking treatment. Fees start at about $40,000 a month for a shared room. Two “sample” rooms soon will be available for viewing by potential clients. (Nina Riggio, Special to The Colorado Sun)

With the legal issues settled, dozens of workers from mountain construction firm RA Nelson now scramble across the lodge. Not a single area remains untouched. The former restaurant and bar are becoming a smoothie bar and cafe. Every pod of units has its own common room adjacent to counselor offices. The new owners donated $300,000 worth of furniture and furnishings to the local Habitat for Humanity as they develop a more modern appeal.

Nordheimer said marketing and advertising efforts are underway and his team is assembling a waiting list of patients. His team recently had actors and models gather in the glass-walled carriage house to film a commercial for the lodge. The models were talking with the lodge’s counselors for the video depicting a group session “and a couple of them had some breakthrough moments,” Nordheimer said.

“With the team and the setting there, you could just see how it put people at ease,” he said. “That certainly gave us some insight into what we are expecting to happen there. It’s just such a unique, amazing setting.”

A California model

The luxury addiction treatment lodge will be a first for Colorado, but it’s a progression of a well-established model in California, where there are almost 2,000 licensed treatment centers, many in residential settings. The explosion of neighborhood addiction rehabilitation in luxury communities in Southern California prodded state and local lawmakers last fall to craft a raft of regulations.

Many of the new California laws addressed operations, like forbidding patient brokering, in which rehab centers pay patients with hefty insurance coverage or pay agents to recruit amply insured patients. One new law requires doctors to more closely study the risks of opioids.

One law signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in September 2018 targets the increasing practice of for-profit rehabilitation companies buying several homes on a single street, creating a sort-of addiction treatment campus in the middle of high-end neighborhoods. That law — Assembly Bill 3162 — places restrictions on new rehab facilities in communities like Malibu, where dozens of addiction treatment centers are based in luxury homes. Another new law requires new facilities in residential homes to create plans for parking and medical waste disposal.

Ripple effects

About half of All Points North Lodge’s 100 employees will be on the service side: concierges, cleaners, maintenance workers, chefs and restaurant staff. The other 50 employees will be a team of nurses, physician assistants, addiction counselors and behavioral health specialists working under a psychiatrist and a doctor.

A second treatment track will offer outpatient services for valley residents who can drive up for regular sessions with counselors. The full lodge is slated to open in October while those outpatient services are set to begin in April.

Brooks, himself 27 years sober, said many of the peer counselors he’s hiring are in recovery, making them better able to connect with patients at the lodge. The ripple effects rolling down from the facility will help reduce the stigma of addiction in the community, Brooks said.

Brooks said All Points North Lodge’s workers and local clients will help to “raise the recovery IQ” in the Eagle Valley by mingling in the community and sharing stigma-dashing perspectives about addiction and relapse.

“As this social web unfolds, the community gets these new insights, and this informed process lowers the stigma and really raises the health of the community as people start to talk more about what they may be dealing with,” Brooks said.

Rising Sun

More from The Colorado Sun



Lobbying is big money in Colorado. But the spending is difficult to track.

Some chat with lawmakers while others huddle in small groups to discuss legislation. Together, these lobbyists will receive tens of millions of dollars this year from big businesses, nonprofit organizations and local governments to influence Colorado elected officials.

The combined total spent on lobbying from July 2014 through December is estimated at $138 million, according to a Colorado Sun analysis of state disclosure reports. How accurate that total is is difficult to discern because of the state’s convoluted disclosure system, inconsistencies in lobbyists’ filings and lax enforcement.

THE UNAFFILIATED: Want exclusive political news and insights first? Subcribe to The Unaffiliated, the political newsletter from The Colorado Sun. Join now or upgrade your membership.

The total spent on lobbying is increasing, to more than $33 million in 2018 from roughly $30 million in 2015, the analysis found.

So far this session, nearly 500 individuals and lobbying firms are registered to influence state lawmakers and officials. That’s about five lobbyists for every legislator.

They represent more than 1,000 clients — from health care nonprofits to the cannabis industry and oil and gas companies — and spend most days tracking legislation, persuading lawmakers to support or oppose certain bills and negotiating for their clients behind the scenes.

The work to influence state lawmakers is just one facet of the job. Many interest groups that hire lobbyists spend big money to influence who gets elected.

The Sun looked at 2018 campaign donations from 150 of the top interest groups and businesses employing lobbyists, and determined they gave nearly $18 million to lawmakers, super PACs and other political committees — most of it aimed at winning seats in the 100-member legislature.

The big dollars lead some to question whether lobbyists wield outsize influence on behalf of their clients, overshadowing the voices of voters, who don’t have a paid presence at the Capitol.

“The problem is when special interests get more airtime than regular people,” said Amanda Gonzalez, executive director of Common Cause Colorado, an organization that seeks to reduce the influence of money in politics.

But lobbyists also play a key role in educating lawmakers, serving as a fountain of information and institutional memory for part-time lawmakers whose terms are limited to eight years in each chamber.

“Sometimes (lawmakers) need really specialized information to help them make decisions,” said Jennifer Victor, a political scientist at George Mason University. “And that’s the role that lobbyists play. … They’re really sort of the information powerhouse of the legislative process.”

The scenario is especially true this year in Colorado. Nearly one-third of the state’s lawmakers are new, and the political landscape has changed. Democrats now hold all the cards after taking control of the state Senate, increasing their numbers in the House and electing a new governor in 2018. That means new issues are being pushed to the forefront and interest groups are scrambling to be heard.

Reporting system complicates public disclosure

In Colorado, lobbyists are required to file monthly reports with the secretary of state’s office, listing the clients they represent, how much the clients pay them, and where the clients stand on the bills they are tracking.

But the information is difficult to navigate, and that makes it hard for the public to know who is paying — and how much — to influence state lawmakers and officials.

There’s plenty of duplication in the system. For instance, when a lobbying firm reports income from clients, its individual employees may also report income from the firm. Many lobbyists are clear that they’re reporting income from subcontracts with other lobbyists, making a note on the form even though it isn’t required. But some don’t specify when a payment comes from another lobbyist as a subcontract.

Capitol Sunlight: A citizen’s guide to lawmaking and lobbying in Colorado

Many lobbyists also report income for all services they provide clients, including non-lobbying consulting, such as public relations. Others don’t.

The Colorado Sun analysis of spending omitted payments from lobbying firms to their employees and made best efforts to eliminate subcontracting payments from totals.

Secretary of State Jena Griswold, a Democrat, acknowledged the shortcomings of the current online system and told The Sun that she’d like to make information about lobbyists more accessible to the public. It’s part of a broader effort in her office to shed more light on the money in politics.

“I think there is a basic tool that we could provide that would be easier to more comprehensively see money in Colorado politics, and that’s what we hope to build,” she said.

Griswold also would like to see more real-time reporting on what bills lobbyists are working on, and even a list of lobbyists and clients working on a bill listed in legislative documents. Now, lobbyists report their income, clients and bills they lobbied once a month. So if a position changes on a bill changes or a client is added, it can be difficult to immediately discern.

Her predecessor, Republican Wayne Williams, began examining the lobbying system last year, consulting with lobbyists and those who use the system, including journalists, to learn about what changes they’d like to see made. Griswold is continuing that process, with an eye on both upgrading the online system and improving reporting requirements.

The big lobbying spenders are major companies

Big business spends the most on lobbyists each legislative session as lawmakers propose bills that could impact them. Xcel Energy, Colorado’s largest utility, tops the list and Comcast, the cable and internet company, comes in second, the Sun’s analysis found.

But associations representing doctors, lawyers and hospitals also rank among the top spenders in the past four and a half years. So do the University of Colorado and the state retirement system.

The Sun contacted the top 15 clients to confirm their lobbying costs. Mile High Racing, AT&T, Uber and the City of Denver didn’t respond, but others confirmed the numbers.

Many of these businesses or industries donated to candidates or super PACs that helped candidates get elected in November. Education unions and a Democratic education nonprofit top the donor list, though it also includes a conservative education nonprofit, a conservative business nonprofit, a service worker union and environmental nonprofit.

Democratic-affiliated super PACs were among the top recipients of the money from industries and organizations with lobbyists, The Sun found. Coloradans for Fairness, which supported Democratic state Senate candidates, received nearly $3.7 million from interest groups with lobbyists, while Our Colorado Values, which backed Democratic state House candidates, received nearly $2.5 million. The GOP Senate Majority Fund received about $2.4 million.

State law prohibits lawmakers from accepting campaign contributions from lobbyists and their clients during the 120-day legislative session.

The campaign contributions may buy access to lawmakers, but the research on whether it sways the issue positions of elected officials is not conclusive, said George Mason’s Victor.

“For the most part, those individuals or groups donate to candidates that already agree with them on issues or policy,” she said. “So the idea that those campaign donations are changing the mind of candidates or are causing those candidates (who) become politicians to make a legislative choice that they wouldn’t have otherwise … we just don’t find a ton of evidence for that.”

Lobbyists get their clients’ voices heard

One recent morning, when Democratic Sen. Faith Winter left the chamber, she talked with four lobbyists. She said she typically talks to a dozen lobbyists a day, at a minimum.

She said she views lobbyists as partners on bills she sponsors, because they provide information, help craft amendments and build coalitions to support her efforts.

“The lobbyists I’m working with on bills I care about share my values,” said Winter, who was a lobbyist before she was elected to office.

Gayle Berry and Mike Feeley have been on both sides of the lawmaking. Berry is a former Republican House member who served on the Joint Budget Committee, while Feeley is a former Democratic Senate minority leader.

Today, they both work as lobbyists, representing corporate, government and nonprofit clients. Those clients often represent everyday Coloradans, Feeley said.

“Everybody’s a special interest,” Feeley said. “Whether you’re a tobacco company or a children’s health organization, you’re still a special interest.”

Berry said she worked with lobbyists when she was a lawmaker, but they didn’t always sway her vote. “If I don’t like your bill, I’m still gonna vote against you,” she said. “And I think that’s a good philosophy to have.”

Most bills don’t spark that much interest with the public. Instead, a roomful of lobbyists typically listens as lawmakers debate measures, and later conduct conversations privately. And Victor, the George Mason political scientist, said it’s possible for the lobbyists and their clients to have more influence than people who are not at the building following the legislative action.

“The people who are playing in that game, who are providing the lobbying and the campaign contributions and going after all that stuff, is not a representative sample of the population,” she said. “It’s not a representative sample of ideas.”

Winter said her constituents’ views matter more than those of lobbyists. “Constituent voices are more important, I think, on their opinion and how they want me to vote and the reasons why, because my job is to bring their hopes and dreams to this building,” the Westminster lawmaker said.

Few people, though, have the time to devote to closely following the activities of the legislature. Gonzalez, who is registered to lobby on behalf of Common Cause Colorado, cited a recent hearing on a bill that would change how the state awards its electoral votes in presidential elections as an example. More than 70 people signed up to address the measure, part of a national popular vote movement.

“We had at least four members there who were planning to testify, one of whom had never been inside the Capitol before,” she said. “Sadly, he ended up having to leave because he had to go pick up his kid.”

Editor’s Note: Correspondent Sandra Fish was one of the journalists who participated in a focus group with the secretary of state’s office last summer about the use of lobbyist data.

Rising Sun

More from The Colorado Sun



What’d I Miss: Depends on your definition of “cult”

Myra has missed 30 years of her life, due to a coma, but has found a new friendship with her young neighbor, Ossie. Together, they both are searching for their place in this world.

< Previous | Start from the beginning |

More cartoons from The Colorado Sun



Morrissey: That’s one way to make a profit

More cartoons from The Colorado Sun.



Morrissey: That’s one way to make a profit

More cartoons from The Colorado Sun.



The legacy of Colorado’s historic abandoned mines includes new, and critical, habitat for opportunistic bats

2018 finalist for Colorado Authors League award for General Non-fiction

Chapter 18

Bat Country

“So what can you tell me about the boots?” I asked the room full of clothing-optional enthusiasts. It was late afternoon, I’d been driving for hours, and I had to know. There was a moment where several volunteers at the hot springs looked around at one another, unsure how to respond. One man shrugged and admitted he had no idea, adding that the shoes have always been there as long as anyone could remember.

I had found the mysterious footwear along a lonely stretch of road at the northern end of the San Luis Valley, cutting between acres of golden farmland. The road leads to the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountain Range for some miles before reaching the hot springs resort. On the southern side, there’s perhaps a mile of fencing with posts topped with hundreds of old cowboy boots and shoes.

At first glance, the tattered footwear slowly rotting in the dying light brought to mind unfortunate images of late ’70s horror movies and cheery cannibal family traditions. In the surreal late afternoon light of the valley reflecting off my vehicle’s windshield, the site did come across as mighty peculiar.

“Gold! Madness, Murder, and Mayhem in the Colorado Rockies” by Ian Neligh.

“You would have noticed if any of your guests went missing?” I asked the group. Many looked a tad uncomfortable wearing clothes, which was apparently required in the visitors center, or possibly at my line of questioning.

In point of fact, the unusual display of boots is something of a tradition dating back generations. In the time-honored Western practice of both paying tribute and letting nothing go to waste, worn-out boots were sometimes retired to serve as protection for the tops of fence posts. In this way, the boots continued to serve their owners by keeping water from destroying the wooden posts. While unusual to see without a complete and helpful understanding of the tradition, it is effective and a form of early recycling. As it turned out, I was at the clothing-optional resort not to partake in the area’s well-known hot springs but to pass through it along an old road leading to one of the most efficient and important examples of natural recycling in the state. From the time of the gold rush, there are some thirty thousand mine-related openings across the state today. The bats in Colorado have followed suit by repurposing abandoned mines for their homes.

As the sun set in an ominous red and orange splash across the dreamlike landscape of the valley, distant rainstorms shouldered their way ever closer as I began my two-mile hike. If I hurried, I could see the largest known bat population in the state emerge from an abandoned mine called the Orient.

Very Bat Behavior

I wasn’t disappointed when I got to Tina Jackson’s office in Denver. A taxidermied bat hung from the wall, rubber Halloween bats hung from the ceiling, and stuffed animal bats were scattered around. Jackson is a species conservation coordinator with Colorado Parks and Wildlife who is responsible for keeping an eye on the state’s bat populations. As it happens, former mines across Colorado are essential to maintaining bats, which have a very direct correlation to the people in the state, their economy, and health.

This relationship began once the gold rush and the fever to burrow into the mountains for precious minerals slowed, and the sounds of picks and rock drills went largely silent. The mines didn’t stay that way long; a variety of bat species soon began setting up their hibernation havens and roosting spots.  Jackson said as the state began closing the mines in the early ’90s someone realized that bats were living in them.

Ian Neligh, author of “Gold! Madness, Murder, and Mayhem in the Colorado Rockies.”

“Closures make a lot of sense. They are for human safety, which definitely should be done,” Jackson explained. “But these mine openings have been around for potentially a hundred-plus years—and the bats have figured that out.”

Bats, mountain lions, bears, rodents, and a host of different types of wildlife began making use of what were essentially man-made caves. The state decided to determine which mines were providing essential habitat and which weren’t. Bats were one of the animals that the state wanted to encourage in their use of old mines. As such, special gates were installed; like giant Venetian blinds they allowed bats to fly in and out and only restricted humans from entering. Jackson said that some mines are too dangerous even for bats to live in, due to poisonous gases or other hazards, but often they find a way to adapt.

“We have Townsend’s big-eared bats that use the uranium mines over in the southwest, so you kind of would think that would be a bad thing, but they’re using them,” Jackson said. Some believe that the bat populations finding and using mines is a result of their species being pushed by humans into new areas, but Jackson believes the bats appropriating the abandoned mines is more of an opportunistic move than one forced upon them.

“We’ve just provided a new place,” Jackson said. “It was a lot like building a birdhouse. We didn’t cut the bird’s tree down and then put the birdhouse up; we just put a birdhouse up and now there’s another bird that can go, ‘Oh, wow, here’s a home.’”

“And the bats have certainly jumped on that,” Jackson said. A survey of more than six thousand mines in Colorado, Arizona, California, and New Mexico shows that anywhere from 30 percent to 70 percent are being used by bats.  According to Jackson, the Townsend’s big-eared bats are the ones most often seen by state biologists making use of the abandoned mines. The big-eared bats are also a species of “special concern” to the state because they are so sensitive to human disturbance. The gradual closure of abandoned mines and loss of caves for bat habitat is thought to have largely contributed to the declining populations of this species in the United States. Jackson added the other poster child of mine-living bat species is the opportunistic Brazilian free-tailed bat, also known as the Mexican free-tailed bat, or Tadarida brasiliensis.

“That one is using abandoned mines in the San Luis Valley and there we have a bachelor colony of a quarter of a million bats in one abandoned mine,” she said.

That same mine is called the Orient, and I was about a quarter of a mile away when I smelled it—long before I reached it. The massive size of the colony can be measured by the smell of guano. Like an old-time restorative of cruel smelling salts, the bouquet of some 250,000 bat droppings is quite powerful. The air becomes heavy with a smell like ammonia, urine, and something akin to moss.

“They’re hugely beneficial,” Jackson said of bats, and she’s not kidding. They are the only flying mammal on the planet to catch and eat some six hundred mosquitoes an hour and put a serious dent in hazardous crop-eating insects. The bats living in the Orient Mine eat two tons of bugs every evening, including the Heliothis moth, which makes victim of a host of crops including everything from corn to pumpkins. And the serious dent they put on mosquito populations is not a bad thing either with the rise of charming mosquito-borne illnesses such as dengue, West Nile, and the Zika virus—to name a few.

“Bats are super beneficial. There’s been some research recently that says billions of dollars every year are saved,” Jackson said of the bat contribution. “They eat agricultural pests, they eat mosquitoes, they eat all sorts of things—and mosquitoes are important from a human disease vector issue.”

Protecting the Batcave

The small party of resort goers and myself reached the top of the climb, with a view of the massive cave-in on the upper levels of the Orient Mine. The iron mine was started in the early 1870s and, while not specifically related to gold, is the largest known example of a mine repurposed by bats in the state.

In my time traversing the mountains and talking with prospectors, I’ve come across more than a few mines specially sealed off with a grate-like structure to allow the passage of bats. But nothing I’ve seen is on this scale. Too large to block off with a small gate, the “Glory Hole” falls away dangerously into the darkness of the mountain. A giant gaping mouth appeared after the mine closed in the 1930s and silently yawns out over the San Luis Valley. The valley is known for its unusual, often jaw-dropping features such as its colorful gator ranch, UFO Watchtower, and its Great Sand Dunes, but nothing could prepare me for what I was about to see. As the sun sank in what can only be described as an apocalyptic smorgasbord of colors, we waited, whispering only when necessary. They would soon arrive.

Jackson told me protecting mines from humans was essential for the bats’ survival. “Waking up a colony of hibernating bats, if it happens often enough, can cause them either to abandon the site or actually die from not having enough fat reserves to make it through the winter,” Jackson explained. “So we’re protecting the people from the mine, but we’re also protecting the bats from the people.”

Biologists will go to a mine site eligible for closure and look for signs of bats, such as guano or bug parts, littering the ground. Failing that they’ll wait for winter and do their best to sneak inside, which is always a dangerous proposition in an abandoned mine.

In 2010 the state worked on nine abandoned mine projects involving bats. These projects consisted of 118 mine openings. That year fifty-five bat gates were installed. In Clear Creek County some thirty-six mines near Dumont were investigated for bats. Of those, twenty-two mines were closed and fourteen received bat gates.

Jackson said white-nose syndrome, a malignant fungal disease that eats away at hibernating bats and brings with it a high mortality rate, hasn’t yet reached Colorado. Biologists are regularly and vigorously monitoring for it in Colorado’s abandoned mines. The fungus was first observed in 2006 and has since affected at least nine species of hibernating bats and spread to twenty-nine states. And there are a lot of abandoned mines in Colorado that still need to be checked and closed every year. Of the roughly thirty thousand mine-related openings across Colorado, ten thousand of them have been made bat friendly in the last twenty years.

“So we’re looking at about another forty years before we get to the remainder of them,” Jackson said. “But on the other hand we’re building closures, but those fail at times. Those fail because people make them fail.”

Indeed, the locations of mines with bats living in them are something of a secret. I’d seen a few, but they were pretty far off the beaten path. Jackson said work to repair and maintain bat gates is a never-ending process. She added that a mine with bats on private property is never fully off-limits.

“When gold prices get high enough . . . it makes sense for people to open them back up,” Jackson said. “We have had cases where our biologists go up to survey, and the gate is open, and there are people working on it.”

Staring up at the sky I spotted two bats fly overhead. Then a few more, then hundreds came twisting out of the mouth of the mine like a single living thing. The bats flew in a thick black column, not far above where I stood, stretching in the cool evening air like a snake. They made some sounds, the flap of a wing or a random squeak, but mostly remained silent in their single-minded purpose to drift over the valley. Thousands of bat wings sounded not unlike the wind whispering over the ocean. For nearly half an hour bats got in line and took their turn entering the giant formation, leaving the mine for their nightly hunting grounds. It seemed to me that it was a sight as valuable as any gold or other precious metal ever removed from the mountains of Colorado.

Rising Sun

From “Gold! Madness, Murder, and Mayhem in the Colorado Rockies,” ©2017 by Ian Neligh, West Margin Press, reprinted by permission.

Buy “Gold!” at BookBar.
Interview with “Gold!” author Ian Neligh.

More from The Colorado Sun



The legacy of Colorado’s historic abandoned mines includes new, and critical, habitat for opportunistic bats

2018 finalist for Colorado Authors League award for General Non-fiction

Chapter 18

Bat Country

“So what can you tell me about the boots?” I asked the room full of clothing-optional enthusiasts. It was late afternoon, I’d been driving for hours, and I had to know. There was a moment where several volunteers at the hot springs looked around at one another, unsure how to respond. One man shrugged and admitted he had no idea, adding that the shoes have always been there as long as anyone could remember.

I had found the mysterious footwear along a lonely stretch of road at the northern end of the San Luis Valley, cutting between acres of golden farmland. The road leads to the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountain Range for some miles before reaching the hot springs resort. On the southern side, there’s perhaps a mile of fencing with posts topped with hundreds of old cowboy boots and shoes.

At first glance, the tattered footwear slowly rotting in the dying light brought to mind unfortunate images of late ’70s horror movies and cheery cannibal family traditions. In the surreal late afternoon light of the valley reflecting off my vehicle’s windshield, the site did come across as mighty peculiar.

“Gold! Madness, Murder, and Mayhem in the Colorado Rockies” by Ian Neligh.

“You would have noticed if any of your guests went missing?” I asked the group. Many looked a tad uncomfortable wearing clothes, which was apparently required in the visitors center, or possibly at my line of questioning.

In point of fact, the unusual display of boots is something of a tradition dating back generations. In the time-honored Western practice of both paying tribute and letting nothing go to waste, worn-out boots were sometimes retired to serve as protection for the tops of fence posts. In this way, the boots continued to serve their owners by keeping water from destroying the wooden posts. While unusual to see without a complete and helpful understanding of the tradition, it is effective and a form of early recycling. As it turned out, I was at the clothing-optional resort not to partake in the area’s well-known hot springs but to pass through it along an old road leading to one of the most efficient and important examples of natural recycling in the state. From the time of the gold rush, there are some thirty thousand mine-related openings across the state today. The bats in Colorado have followed suit by repurposing abandoned mines for their homes.

As the sun set in an ominous red and orange splash across the dreamlike landscape of the valley, distant rainstorms shouldered their way ever closer as I began my two-mile hike. If I hurried, I could see the largest known bat population in the state emerge from an abandoned mine called the Orient.

Very Bat Behavior

I wasn’t disappointed when I got to Tina Jackson’s office in Denver. A taxidermied bat hung from the wall, rubber Halloween bats hung from the ceiling, and stuffed animal bats were scattered around. Jackson is a species conservation coordinator with Colorado Parks and Wildlife who is responsible for keeping an eye on the state’s bat populations. As it happens, former mines across Colorado are essential to maintaining bats, which have a very direct correlation to the people in the state, their economy, and health.

This relationship began once the gold rush and the fever to burrow into the mountains for precious minerals slowed, and the sounds of picks and rock drills went largely silent. The mines didn’t stay that way long; a variety of bat species soon began setting up their hibernation havens and roosting spots.  Jackson said as the state began closing the mines in the early ’90s someone realized that bats were living in them.

Ian Neligh, author of “Gold! Madness, Murder, and Mayhem in the Colorado Rockies.”

“Closures make a lot of sense. They are for human safety, which definitely should be done,” Jackson explained. “But these mine openings have been around for potentially a hundred-plus years—and the bats have figured that out.”

Bats, mountain lions, bears, rodents, and a host of different types of wildlife began making use of what were essentially man-made caves. The state decided to determine which mines were providing essential habitat and which weren’t. Bats were one of the animals that the state wanted to encourage in their use of old mines. As such, special gates were installed; like giant Venetian blinds they allowed bats to fly in and out and only restricted humans from entering. Jackson said that some mines are too dangerous even for bats to live in, due to poisonous gases or other hazards, but often they find a way to adapt.

“We have Townsend’s big-eared bats that use the uranium mines over in the southwest, so you kind of would think that would be a bad thing, but they’re using them,” Jackson said. Some believe that the bat populations finding and using mines is a result of their species being pushed by humans into new areas, but Jackson believes the bats appropriating the abandoned mines is more of an opportunistic move than one forced upon them.

“We’ve just provided a new place,” Jackson said. “It was a lot like building a birdhouse. We didn’t cut the bird’s tree down and then put the birdhouse up; we just put a birdhouse up and now there’s another bird that can go, ‘Oh, wow, here’s a home.’”

“And the bats have certainly jumped on that,” Jackson said. A survey of more than six thousand mines in Colorado, Arizona, California, and New Mexico shows that anywhere from 30 percent to 70 percent are being used by bats.  According to Jackson, the Townsend’s big-eared bats are the ones most often seen by state biologists making use of the abandoned mines. The big-eared bats are also a species of “special concern” to the state because they are so sensitive to human disturbance. The gradual closure of abandoned mines and loss of caves for bat habitat is thought to have largely contributed to the declining populations of this species in the United States. Jackson added the other poster child of mine-living bat species is the opportunistic Brazilian free-tailed bat, also known as the Mexican free-tailed bat, or Tadarida brasiliensis.

“That one is using abandoned mines in the San Luis Valley and there we have a bachelor colony of a quarter of a million bats in one abandoned mine,” she said.

That same mine is called the Orient, and I was about a quarter of a mile away when I smelled it—long before I reached it. The massive size of the colony can be measured by the smell of guano. Like an old-time restorative of cruel smelling salts, the bouquet of some 250,000 bat droppings is quite powerful. The air becomes heavy with a smell like ammonia, urine, and something akin to moss.

“They’re hugely beneficial,” Jackson said of bats, and she’s not kidding. They are the only flying mammal on the planet to catch and eat some six hundred mosquitoes an hour and put a serious dent in hazardous crop-eating insects. The bats living in the Orient Mine eat two tons of bugs every evening, including the Heliothis moth, which makes victim of a host of crops including everything from corn to pumpkins. And the serious dent they put on mosquito populations is not a bad thing either with the rise of charming mosquito-borne illnesses such as dengue, West Nile, and the Zika virus—to name a few.

“Bats are super beneficial. There’s been some research recently that says billions of dollars every year are saved,” Jackson said of the bat contribution. “They eat agricultural pests, they eat mosquitoes, they eat all sorts of things—and mosquitoes are important from a human disease vector issue.”

Protecting the Batcave

The small party of resort goers and myself reached the top of the climb, with a view of the massive cave-in on the upper levels of the Orient Mine. The iron mine was started in the early 1870s and, while not specifically related to gold, is the largest known example of a mine repurposed by bats in the state.

In my time traversing the mountains and talking with prospectors, I’ve come across more than a few mines specially sealed off with a grate-like structure to allow the passage of bats. But nothing I’ve seen is on this scale. Too large to block off with a small gate, the “Glory Hole” falls away dangerously into the darkness of the mountain. A giant gaping mouth appeared after the mine closed in the 1930s and silently yawns out over the San Luis Valley. The valley is known for its unusual, often jaw-dropping features such as its colorful gator ranch, UFO Watchtower, and its Great Sand Dunes, but nothing could prepare me for what I was about to see. As the sun sank in what can only be described as an apocalyptic smorgasbord of colors, we waited, whispering only when necessary. They would soon arrive.

Jackson told me protecting mines from humans was essential for the bats’ survival. “Waking up a colony of hibernating bats, if it happens often enough, can cause them either to abandon the site or actually die from not having enough fat reserves to make it through the winter,” Jackson explained. “So we’re protecting the people from the mine, but we’re also protecting the bats from the people.”

Biologists will go to a mine site eligible for closure and look for signs of bats, such as guano or bug parts, littering the ground. Failing that they’ll wait for winter and do their best to sneak inside, which is always a dangerous proposition in an abandoned mine.

In 2010 the state worked on nine abandoned mine projects involving bats. These projects consisted of 118 mine openings. That year fifty-five bat gates were installed. In Clear Creek County some thirty-six mines near Dumont were investigated for bats. Of those, twenty-two mines were closed and fourteen received bat gates.

Jackson said white-nose syndrome, a malignant fungal disease that eats away at hibernating bats and brings with it a high mortality rate, hasn’t yet reached Colorado. Biologists are regularly and vigorously monitoring for it in Colorado’s abandoned mines. The fungus was first observed in 2006 and has since affected at least nine species of hibernating bats and spread to twenty-nine states. And there are a lot of abandoned mines in Colorado that still need to be checked and closed every year. Of the roughly thirty thousand mine-related openings across Colorado, ten thousand of them have been made bat friendly in the last twenty years.

“So we’re looking at about another forty years before we get to the remainder of them,” Jackson said. “But on the other hand we’re building closures, but those fail at times. Those fail because people make them fail.”

Indeed, the locations of mines with bats living in them are something of a secret. I’d seen a few, but they were pretty far off the beaten path. Jackson said work to repair and maintain bat gates is a never-ending process. She added that a mine with bats on private property is never fully off-limits.

“When gold prices get high enough . . . it makes sense for people to open them back up,” Jackson said. “We have had cases where our biologists go up to survey, and the gate is open, and there are people working on it.”

Staring up at the sky I spotted two bats fly overhead. Then a few more, then hundreds came twisting out of the mouth of the mine like a single living thing. The bats flew in a thick black column, not far above where I stood, stretching in the cool evening air like a snake. They made some sounds, the flap of a wing or a random squeak, but mostly remained silent in their single-minded purpose to drift over the valley. Thousands of bat wings sounded not unlike the wind whispering over the ocean. For nearly half an hour bats got in line and took their turn entering the giant formation, leaving the mine for their nightly hunting grounds. It seemed to me that it was a sight as valuable as any gold or other precious metal ever removed from the mountains of Colorado.

Rising Sun

From “Gold! Madness, Murder, and Mayhem in the Colorado Rockies,” ©2017 by Ian Neligh, West Margin Press, reprinted by permission.

Buy “Gold!” at BookBar.
Interview with “Gold!” author Ian Neligh.

More from The Colorado Sun



A trip to Cuba is worth it, even if leaves you with more questions than answers

HAVANA, Cuba — It takes less than an hour to fly from south Florida into Cuba. But descending through the clouds toward the island nation felt like entering another universe.

Before we even touched down I could feel the threshold I was passing through.

From above, I could see old vehicles traversing dusty roads. I could see fields burning. I could see brilliant colors that have come to symbolize Cuba’s vibrant culture.

When I told people I would be visiting this island nation with my family at the end of 2018, there were mixed reactions. About half seemed excited. The rest were puzzled. “Why there?” they wondered.

And, to be honest, I really had little idea of what I was getting myself into. I underestimated the political complexity of Cuba. I didn’t realize the level of poverty in the country. And I definitely had no idea how welcoming and hopeful its citizens would be, despite their very real struggles.

At every turn, I found myself incredibly confused. How does this place work, with its unusual economy sucking energy away from its immense potential? And then there’s the history — so much of it — entangled in a head-scratching relationship with the U.S. that I still can’t fully wrap my mind around.

A vintage car travels down a street in Havana, Cuba, in December 2018. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

The country’s economy is obviously struggling, but at the same time Cuba and its people clearly could have a bright future. They have some of the best healthcare outcomes in the world and a landscape with much to offer. Its citizens are hoping to benefit from that, even as they acknowledge their nation is straddling a precarious line between financial chaos and tourist mecca.

Here’s a snapshot of Cuba today: Many people make less than $100 a month if they work a government job, which most do, but often supplement that with side gigs that raise their income to sometimes $200 a month or more. That means there is a lot of incentive to work in the socialist nation’s limited private industry or in tourism, where tips can be generous — and necessary to make a life.

At the first bed and breakfast we stayed in, one of the employees was a trained veterinarian. But as a mother of three, she said she could make more money working in hospitality. A cab driver we met was an engineer, but couldn’t make enough in his trade so he ferries tourists around Havana.

Parts of Cuba’s capital city look post-apocalyptic. Buildings are decrepit because no one takes care of them.  They frequently collapse during the summer rainy season because of disrepair. But for a city that feels like it’s disintegrating, it’s so beautiful at the same time. I kept wanting to wrap myself up in its energy like a blanket.

A vintage car passes a street in Havana, Cuba on Dec. 31, 2018. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

The colorful, romantic images of Cuba that include fedoras, great music, old cars, rum and cigars aren’t wrong. They’re just very nuanced. If you don’t take into consideration the extreme poverty alongside those vibrant traditions, you’re missing the picture.

Consider this: a nice Cuban cigar costs only a few dollars. That might not seem like a lot, but considering the low wages in the country, they are often out of reach for Cubans.

Yet, Cubans I spoke with were generally happy and hopeful. They spoke of their free and easy access to health care and universal education as positives. The woman we met at the bed and breakfast kept repeating the same phrases when she spoke of Cuba’s future: “vamos a ver” and “poco a poco.”

Translated: “We will see” and “little by little.”

That doesn’t mean they are content with their economic reality, but they said they are optimistic. America plays a big role in that outlook.

Former President Barack Obama’s visit in 2016 was a watershed moment. People in Cuba are still talking about it. Conversely, everyone I spoke with didn’t like the Trump administration or its decision to roll back some of the restrictions loosened by Obama. But they generally like Americans.

Two men stopped me in the Cuban mountain town of Viñales to find out where I was from. When I told them the United States, they gave me a big, excited hug.

“Don’t believe the lies about what Cubans feel about Americans,” one of the men said in Spanish, telling me the U.S. was his favorite nation.

Two men on horseback make their way through along a path near the town of Viñales, Cuba, in December 2018. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

It was difficult to piece these feelings and realities together. The math, to me, didn’t add up. Cuba is embracing pieces of capitalism to the benefit of many, but most people seemingly are still being left behind unless they can hustle their way upwards. It reminded me of China, where capitalism and communism have a backroom agreement to coexist.

The creation of those divides would appear to go against everything communism stands for. How could it not spell socio-economic friction in the years to come? And what would happen to Cuba if, say, tourism dried up because of geopolitical realities? What then?

“Cuba is not as black and white as it seems,” one person told us.

I’d recommend a trip to Cuba to anyone who is able. There are still travel restrictions that bar visits for tourism. My family, 20 of us — yes, 20, ranging in age from 15 to 83 —  went for educational purposes. You can also visit for family reasons, official government business, journalism, research, religion, support for Cuban people and humanitarian projects.

Cuba has a painful record when it comes to human rights — and that cannot be ignored. There’s still plenty of communist propaganda — like signs demanding people adhere to socialism — and clear repression of private economic growth. I saw plenty of people living in poverty, something that was hard to square while enjoying a mojito in Havana’s restored old city.

An homage to Che Guevara looks over the Plaza de la Revolución in Havana, Cuba, in December 2018. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

A sign of the lack of access to the outside world for Cubans: Internet is something you can really only get in a public park, and it’s fairly expensive.

You will, however, learn so much. Cubans are welcoming to outsiders. They want to talk about their lives and experiences and interact. The culture is rich with music and art.

It’s a beautiful place worth attempting to understand.

A scene near the town of Viñales, Cuba, in December 2018. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)
Rising Sun

More from The Colorado Sun




A trip to Cuba is worth it, even if leaves you with more questions than answers

HAVANA, Cuba — It takes less than an hour to fly from south Florida into Cuba. But descending through the clouds toward the island nation felt like entering another universe.

Before we even touched down I could feel the threshold I was passing through.

From above, I could see old vehicles traversing dusty roads. I could see fields burning. I could see brilliant colors that have come to symbolize Cuba’s vibrant culture.

When I told people I would be visiting this island nation with my family at the end of 2018, there were mixed reactions. About half seemed excited. The rest were puzzled. “Why there?” they wondered.

And, to be honest, I really had little idea of what I was getting myself into. I underestimated the political complexity of Cuba. I didn’t realize the level of poverty in the country. And I definitely had no idea how welcoming and hopeful its citizens would be, despite their very real struggles.

At every turn, I found myself incredibly confused. How does this place work, with its unusual economy sucking energy away from its immense potential? And then there’s the history — so much of it — entangled in a head-scratching relationship with the U.S. that I still can’t fully wrap my mind around.

A vintage car travels down a street in Havana, Cuba, in December 2018. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

The country’s economy is obviously struggling, but at the same time Cuba and its people clearly could have a bright future. They have some of the best healthcare outcomes in the world and a landscape with much to offer. Its citizens are hoping to benefit from that, even as they acknowledge their nation is straddling a precarious line between financial chaos and tourist mecca.

Here’s a snapshot of Cuba today: Many people make less than $100 a month if they work a government job, which most do, but often supplement that with side gigs that raise their income to sometimes $200 a month or more. That means there is a lot of incentive to work in the socialist nation’s limited private industry or in tourism, where tips can be generous — and necessary to make a life.

At the first bed and breakfast we stayed in, one of the employees was a trained veterinarian. But as a mother of three, she said she could make more money working in hospitality. A cab driver we met was an engineer, but couldn’t make enough in his trade so he ferries tourists around Havana.

Parts of Cuba’s capital city look post-apocalyptic. Buildings are decrepit because no one takes care of them.  They frequently collapse during the summer rainy season because of disrepair. But for a city that feels like it’s disintegrating, it’s so beautiful at the same time. I kept wanting to wrap myself up in its energy like a blanket.

A vintage car passes a street in Havana, Cuba on Dec. 31, 2018. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

The colorful, romantic images of Cuba that include fedoras, great music, old cars, rum and cigars aren’t wrong. They’re just very nuanced. If you don’t take into consideration the extreme poverty alongside those vibrant traditions, you’re missing the picture.

Consider this: a nice Cuban cigar costs only a few dollars. That might not seem like a lot, but considering the low wages in the country, they are often out of reach for Cubans.

Yet, Cubans I spoke with were generally happy and hopeful. They spoke of their free and easy access to health care and universal education as positives. The woman we met at the bed and breakfast kept repeating the same phrases when she spoke of Cuba’s future: “vamos a ver” and “poco a poco.”

Translated: “We will see” and “little by little.”

That doesn’t mean they are content with their economic reality, but they said they are optimistic. America plays a big role in that outlook.

Former President Barack Obama’s visit in 2016 was a watershed moment. People in Cuba are still talking about it. Conversely, everyone I spoke with didn’t like the Trump administration or its decision to roll back some of the restrictions loosened by Obama. But they generally like Americans.

Two men stopped me in the Cuban mountain town of Viñales to find out where I was from. When I told them the United States, they gave me a big, excited hug.

“Don’t believe the lies about what Cubans feel about Americans,” one of the men said in Spanish, telling me the U.S. was his favorite nation.

Two men on horseback make their way through along a path near the town of Viñales, Cuba, in December 2018. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

It was difficult to piece these feelings and realities together. The math, to me, didn’t add up. Cuba is embracing pieces of capitalism to the benefit of many, but most people seemingly are still being left behind unless they can hustle their way upwards. It reminded me of China, where capitalism and communism have a backroom agreement to coexist.

The creation of those divides would appear to go against everything communism stands for. How could it not spell socio-economic friction in the years to come? And what would happen to Cuba if, say, tourism dried up because of geopolitical realities? What then?

“Cuba is not as black and white as it seems,” one person told us.

I’d recommend a trip to Cuba to anyone who is able. There are still travel restrictions that bar visits for tourism. My family, 20 of us — yes, 20, ranging in age from 15 to 83 —  went for educational purposes. You can also visit for family reasons, official government business, journalism, research, religion, support for Cuban people and humanitarian projects.

Cuba has a painful record when it comes to human rights — and that cannot be ignored. There’s still plenty of communist propaganda — like signs demanding people adhere to socialism — and clear repression of private economic growth. I saw plenty of people living in poverty, something that was hard to square while enjoying a mojito in Havana’s restored old city.

An homage to Che Guevara looks over the Plaza de la Revolución in Havana, Cuba, in December 2018. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

A sign of the lack of access to the outside world for Cubans: Internet is something you can really only get in a public park, and it’s fairly expensive.

You will, however, learn so much. Cubans are welcoming to outsiders. They want to talk about their lives and experiences and interact. The culture is rich with music and art.

It’s a beautiful place worth attempting to understand.

A scene near the town of Viñales, Cuba, in December 2018. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)
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Working in Colorado mining region gave author urge to seek origins of “gold fever”

Ian Neligh has won many state and national journalism awards for his writing and reporting including first place for online in-depth reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists and first place for investigative reporting from the Colorado Press Association. He developed his passion for storytelling growing up in Colorado, where around the family dinner table he learned a good story must be captivating — and if possible, hilarious.

What inspired you to write this book? 

From the decayed remnants of old mining operations along I-70 to the ghost towns hidden beneath the state’s mountainous passes, Colorado’s history is all around us and the memorials to that time are everywhere. They are signs of an age gone but not dead. Ten years ago, I worked as a newspaper editor in a small mountain town and had the good fortune to meet and become acquaintances with people who made their living finding gold. One man in particular would see me on my way to an assignment and call me across to street to show off the gold nugget he’d dug out of the river just the day before. He regularly climbed into a wetsuit and dove into freezing mountain rivers to find an elusive fortune. I realized then that people were still risking everything to find gold — much as those miners and prospectors did over 150 years ago and often in the same areas. The idea someone could, or would, still do that I found amazing. Mining, in any form, is dangerous, difficult and sometimes lethal. I asked myself “are there others out there who do this?” 

I then spent the better part of a year answering that question by finding and following these people largely located in Clear Creek and Gilpin County which was the epicenter for Colorado’s original gold rush. I went back to the history of the state to look at what type of person would come out to what was a lawless territory to risk everything and how they compared to those still doing it today. I found the history and pursuit of gold is filled with wild stories that are sometimes funny and just as often terrifying. I followed, researched and wrote about the modern and historic miners, prospectors and treasure hunters and the gunslingers, criminals, and cannibals that came out West with the discovery of gold and the one thing they all had in common — gold fever.

Ian Neligh, author of “Gold! Madness, Murder, and Mayhem in the Colorado Rockies.”

Who are your favorite authors and/or characters?

For nonfiction I am an enormous fan of the author John McPhee. His books take readers into unusual and fascinating worlds, where he shows a seamless ability to educate and entertain about everything from the Swiss Army to humankind’s attempts to control nature. Also, I enjoy the work of Hunter S. Thompson, who could both make you laugh and cry as he dragged you through the vestiges of the American dream. My admiration also goes to the extraordinary writing skill of authors such as Studs Terkel, Erik Larson and too many more to count. I read a fair amount of fiction as well and am amazed by the masterful storytelling of Neil Gaiman, Tony Hillerman’s magnificent descriptions of the American West, and the delightful imagery of Ray Bradbury — and many, many more. I also enjoy the books of C.J. Box, who has a wonderful sense of plot and unpredictability. I also have tremendous respect for Mr. Box’s ability to research his stories, making them as authentic as possible as he was originally trained as a newspaper journalist.

Why did you choose this excerpt to feature in SunLit?

“Gold! Madness, Murder, and Mayhem in the Colorado Rockies” features a lot about those who built the mines, dug out the gold, and who still do today. I selected the chapter “Bat Country” because it is a wonderful opportunity to share with readers what happens to mines after they’ve become abandoned and how they have taken on a second life that’s beneficial to the residents of Colorado. The story of the gold rush isn’t a tale that is relegated to the past but continues onward into our present and future.

“Gold! Madness, Murder, and Mayhem in the Colorado Rockies” by Ian Neligh

What was the most fun or rewarding part of working on this book?

Getting to spend time with the people who make up the modern history of gold today was a thrill and a tremendous amount of fun. I went with miners into 140-year-old mines, rode with state employees whose job it is to find abandoned mines and have the dangerous job of closing them, and interviewed museum curators about unusual gold discoveries. Researching the voices of those who lived the original gold rush was amazing but spending time with those living in its shadow today was a blast.

What was the most difficult section to write in this book? Why?

Deciding how to cover the history of the gold rush was challenging because historians have already written so much about the state’s history. It was essential not to write something like “The Westward Expansion and Economic Realities of the European Settler, Vol. 2”; there is already plenty out there like that and they’re all miserable to read recreationally. My goal was to write something that expressed the excitement and wonder of the time. History is thrilling and it was my goal to convey that in the best way I could. When writing about history it is always my primary goal to find the stories that have slipped through the cracks, to give a chapter to someone who might only get a sentence or two in a traditional history book, and to convey a sense of how weird and amazing the time was.

What was one interesting fact you learned while researching this book?

The entire process of researching those who discover gold today and 150 years ago was a journey of learning one interesting fact after another. If I’m not amazed and in wonder about what I’m discovering and writing I don’t imagine the reader will be, either. However, moving past the stories of gunslingers, cannibalism, and even stories of the supernatural written by the newspapers of the time, I found the story of the ghost town of Independence fascinating. The state is brimming with ghost towns but only in Independence did the town have to evacuate on makeshift skis torn from the buildings to avoid dying in a massive avalanche.

What project are you working on next?

I’ve recently recorded the audiobook for “Gold! Madness, Murder, and Mayhem in the Colorado Rockies,” which should be available sometime later this year. I also just finished “Spurred West,” which is a nonfiction book about the historic and modern-day Wild West. I’ve been researching and interviewing bounty hunters, U.S. Marshals, bare-knuckle boxers, gunslingers, brand inspectors, and more to compare them with their historical counterparts and to discover if the West is still wild. Writing this book allowed me to look for lost treasure, to meet the inventor of one of the most powerful handguns on the planet and enroll in an outdoor survival school. The book will be out in bookstores this fall.

Rising Sun

Buy “Gold! Madness, Murder, and Mayhem in the Colorado Rockies” at BookBar.
Excerpt from “Gold! Madness, Murder, and Mayhem in the Colorado Rockies.”

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Working in Colorado mining region gave author urge to seek origins of “gold fever”

Ian Neligh has won many state and national journalism awards for his writing and reporting including first place for online in-depth reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists and first place for investigative reporting from the Colorado Press Association. He developed his passion for storytelling growing up in Colorado, where around the family dinner table he learned a good story must be captivating — and if possible, hilarious.

What inspired you to write this book? 

From the decayed remnants of old mining operations along I-70 to the ghost towns hidden beneath the state’s mountainous passes, Colorado’s history is all around us and the memorials to that time are everywhere. They are signs of an age gone but not dead. Ten years ago, I worked as a newspaper editor in a small mountain town and had the good fortune to meet and become acquaintances with people who made their living finding gold. One man in particular would see me on my way to an assignment and call me across to street to show off the gold nugget he’d dug out of the river just the day before. He regularly climbed into a wetsuit and dove into freezing mountain rivers to find an elusive fortune. I realized then that people were still risking everything to find gold — much as those miners and prospectors did over 150 years ago and often in the same areas. The idea someone could, or would, still do that I found amazing. Mining, in any form, is dangerous, difficult and sometimes lethal. I asked myself “are there others out there who do this?” 

I then spent the better part of a year answering that question by finding and following these people largely located in Clear Creek and Gilpin County which was the epicenter for Colorado’s original gold rush. I went back to the history of the state to look at what type of person would come out to what was a lawless territory to risk everything and how they compared to those still doing it today. I found the history and pursuit of gold is filled with wild stories that are sometimes funny and just as often terrifying. I followed, researched and wrote about the modern and historic miners, prospectors and treasure hunters and the gunslingers, criminals, and cannibals that came out West with the discovery of gold and the one thing they all had in common — gold fever.

Ian Neligh, author of “Gold! Madness, Murder, and Mayhem in the Colorado Rockies.”

Who are your favorite authors and/or characters?

For nonfiction I am an enormous fan of the author John McPhee. His books take readers into unusual and fascinating worlds, where he shows a seamless ability to educate and entertain about everything from the Swiss Army to humankind’s attempts to control nature. Also, I enjoy the work of Hunter S. Thompson, who could both make you laugh and cry as he dragged you through the vestiges of the American dream. My admiration also goes to the extraordinary writing skill of authors such as Studs Terkel, Erik Larson and too many more to count. I read a fair amount of fiction as well and am amazed by the masterful storytelling of Neil Gaiman, Tony Hillerman’s magnificent descriptions of the American West, and the delightful imagery of Ray Bradbury — and many, many more. I also enjoy the books of C.J. Box, who has a wonderful sense of plot and unpredictability. I also have tremendous respect for Mr. Box’s ability to research his stories, making them as authentic as possible as he was originally trained as a newspaper journalist.

Why did you choose this excerpt to feature in SunLit?

“Gold! Madness, Murder, and Mayhem in the Colorado Rockies” features a lot about those who built the mines, dug out the gold, and who still do today. I selected the chapter “Bat Country” because it is a wonderful opportunity to share with readers what happens to mines after they’ve become abandoned and how they have taken on a second life that’s beneficial to the residents of Colorado. The story of the gold rush isn’t a tale that is relegated to the past but continues onward into our present and future.

“Gold! Madness, Murder, and Mayhem in the Colorado Rockies” by Ian Neligh

What was the most fun or rewarding part of working on this book?

Getting to spend time with the people who make up the modern history of gold today was a thrill and a tremendous amount of fun. I went with miners into 140-year-old mines, rode with state employees whose job it is to find abandoned mines and have the dangerous job of closing them, and interviewed museum curators about unusual gold discoveries. Researching the voices of those who lived the original gold rush was amazing but spending time with those living in its shadow today was a blast.

What was the most difficult section to write in this book? Why?

Deciding how to cover the history of the gold rush was challenging because historians have already written so much about the state’s history. It was essential not to write something like “The Westward Expansion and Economic Realities of the European Settler, Vol. 2”; there is already plenty out there like that and they’re all miserable to read recreationally. My goal was to write something that expressed the excitement and wonder of the time. History is thrilling and it was my goal to convey that in the best way I could. When writing about history it is always my primary goal to find the stories that have slipped through the cracks, to give a chapter to someone who might only get a sentence or two in a traditional history book, and to convey a sense of how weird and amazing the time was.

What was one interesting fact you learned while researching this book?

The entire process of researching those who discover gold today and 150 years ago was a journey of learning one interesting fact after another. If I’m not amazed and in wonder about what I’m discovering and writing I don’t imagine the reader will be, either. However, moving past the stories of gunslingers, cannibalism, and even stories of the supernatural written by the newspapers of the time, I found the story of the ghost town of Independence fascinating. The state is brimming with ghost towns but only in Independence did the town have to evacuate on makeshift skis torn from the buildings to avoid dying in a massive avalanche.

What project are you working on next?

I’ve recently recorded the audiobook for “Gold! Madness, Murder, and Mayhem in the Colorado Rockies,” which should be available sometime later this year. I also just finished “Spurred West,” which is a nonfiction book about the historic and modern-day Wild West. I’ve been researching and interviewing bounty hunters, U.S. Marshals, bare-knuckle boxers, gunslingers, brand inspectors, and more to compare them with their historical counterparts and to discover if the West is still wild. Writing this book allowed me to look for lost treasure, to meet the inventor of one of the most powerful handguns on the planet and enroll in an outdoor survival school. The book will be out in bookstores this fall.

Rising Sun

Buy “Gold! Madness, Murder, and Mayhem in the Colorado Rockies” at BookBar.
Excerpt from “Gold! Madness, Murder, and Mayhem in the Colorado Rockies.”

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Litton: A tale of two incomes — at Denver prices

More cartoons from The Colorado Sun.



Litton: A tale of two incomes — at Denver prices

More cartoons from The Colorado Sun.



Without a single Republican in support, national popular vote effort moves to Colorado governor’s desk

After weeks of intense pushback from the GOP — and without a single Republican state lawmaker in support — a bill joining Colorado to a national compact attempting to bypass the Electoral College system is heading to Gov. Jared Polis’ desk.

Polis has voiced support for the measure and, despite the lack of bipartisan support, is expected to sign Senate Bill 42. The measure aims to ensure a presidential candidate who wins the national popular vote is the candidate elected president.

The legislation cleared the state House on Thursday following hours of debate starting on Wednesday as Republicans made failed attempt after failed attempt to amend the bill.

MORE: Colorado lawmakers are sparring over a plan to bypass the Electoral College. Here’s what’s at stake.

“It’s certainly disappointing,” said state Sen. Mike Foote, a Boulder County Democrat and bill sponsor about the lack of bipartisanship. “It’s not intended to be a partisan issue.”

The measure passed its first Senate committee 3-2 along party lines and then went before the full chamber where it was approved on partisan split 19-16. In the House, it won approval in its first committee hearing 6-3 on party lines before its final vote Thursday.

The House vote was 34-29 with no Republican support. Six Democrats voted against it: Reps. Adrienne Benavidez of Denver; Bri Buentello of Pueblo; Barbara McLachlan of Durango; Marc Snyder of Manitou Springs; Daneya Esgar of Pueblo; and Donald Valdez of La Jara.

Another Democrat, Rep. Janet Buckner of Aurora, was absent.

The final Colorado House vote on Senate Bill 42 on Feb. 21, 2019, which would join the state onto the national popular vote compact. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

The bill is among the first to pass the Colorado legislature this year without any Republican support. There is a strong possibility other measures will follow the same route — including the “red flag” gun bill — given that Democrats control both chambers and the governor’s office.

But the split is notable given Democrats’ pledge to to work across the aisle, including on the most controversial of issues like sexual education legislation. Sen. Don Coram, a Montrose Republican, is a prime sponsor of that bill.

Republicans argue that the compact is an end-run around the U.S. Constitution that cuts out the voice of rural voters and would make Colorado irrelevant in electoral politics by effectively handing over the decision of who will be president to more populous states.

“It will be a breach of public trust to convert the electors of Colorado into the agents of California,” said Rep. Lori Saine, a Firestone Republican. “There is a reason that the proponents brought this particular bill to this particular body at this particular time. It does an end-run around how we amend the Constitution of the United States. … This is an exercise of the tyranny of the majority.”

Democrats say the compact is a perfectly legal way to update a system created some 250 years ago. They argue it’s more equitable and ensures that every vote cast in a presidential election is truly equal.

Foote said that polling across the country has showed bipartisan support for the compact and pointed to Republicans elsewhere who have been in favor of the policy.  He believes Trump’s loss in 2016 is fueling the GOP pushback in Colorado to the measure this year.

“I suspect that if we have an election in 2020 where the Democratic candidate wins the electoral college without winning the popular votes then we may see a big switch in that (partisan split),” Foote said. “But as of now we are dealing with the after effects of November 2016. The national popular vote is a long-term proposition.”

There are also political implications for both parties. Voters in rural states with smaller populations tend to be more conservative — think Wyoming and North Dakota — and, under the Electoral College system, have a greater voice in elections. Democrat Hillary Clinton won the national popular vote in 2016 over Republican Donald Trump, but lost the electoral count.

Five of the nation’s 45 presidents have won the Electoral College vote and not the popular vote. Before Clinton’s loss, Democrat Al Gore fell short in the same way to Republican George W. Bush in 2000.

The compact would only go into effect if a presidential candidate won the highest number of votes in a race but fell short in the Electoral College tally. But first, enough states would have to adopt the policy to equal enough Electoral College votes — 270 — to win the presidency.

If Polis signs Senate Bill 42, Colorado would become the 12th state to join the compact. New Jersey, New York, California, Washington and Maryland are among those who have already adopted it.

Information from National Popular Vote. Map by Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun.

Colorado’s nine electoral votes make the total represented in the compact 181. Other state legislatures also are weighing whether to join.

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A push to fix Colorado’s lowest-in-the-nation vaccine rates has an unexpected critic: Jared Polis

A series of measles outbreaks in the U.S. is putting a spotlight on the state with the lowest rate of vaccinations in the nation: Colorado.

Less than 89 percent of the state’s kindergarten-aged children have received the vaccines needed to prevent illnesses such as measles, mumps, whooping cough and chickenpox — far below the national median and the 95 percent threshold needed to prevent an outbreak.

The state ranks at the bottom because the law allows parents to claim exemptions for medical, religious or personal reasons, which is “essentially the easiest exemption policy in the country,” said Dr. Sean O’Leary, an associate professor in pediatrics and infectious diseases at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. “We need to do something about it.”

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A Colorado lawmaker is drafting legislation to eliminate the personal-belief exemption and make the process harder for parents to opt out. But it’s meeting an unexpected obstacle: Gov. Jared Polis.

The Democrat is making his opposition clear from the start, and the governor’s office initially told the state’s public health agency not to help lawmakers with the legislation, an extraordinary move even for a hands-on governor.

The vaccine issue is a sensitive one in Colorado, where conservatives and vaccine critics believe parents should make decisions about whether to immunize their children, but health professionals worry the state is ripe for an outbreak.

“For Colorado, for a measles outbreak, it’s not a matter of if — it’s a matter of when,” O’Leary said.

In January, Denver Public Health issued a warning about measles exposure, and in February, state health officials began investigating multiple reports of mumps infections. The Colorado alerts followed a measles outbreak in Washington state that led the governor to declare a state of emergency.

“We see outbreaks happening all over the country right now,” said state Rep. Kyle Mullica, D-Northglenn. “I’d rather be proactive, than reactive on something. We shouldn’t have to wait for a kid to die, to declare a state of emergency, before we act on something.”

MORE: Jared Polis is taking a more aggressive approach to the legislature. And not all lawmakers are happy.

Colorado is home to most vaccine exemptions

Mullica, an emergency room nurse and father of three, is leading the effort to restrict exceptions to a state law that requires all children at schools and licensed child care facilities to receive vaccinations. He said he’s approaching the issue “from a student safety perspective.”

“As a dad, I want to do all we can to protect my kids, and I want to do all we can as a legislature to protect our kids,” he said. “I feel like we have to address this. We are last in the country.”

Click image to see full-resolution chart. DATA: CDC

The low rates are evident in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that analyzed data from the 2017-18 school year. The federal numbers also show that more parents claim exemptions in Colorado than any other state tracked.

The vast majority — 88 percent — of the annual opt outs from vaccines were attributed to the “personal beliefs” of parents. Religious reasons accounted for just 8 percent of exemptions and medical cases were less than 5 percent, according to state-level data from the same school year.

Colorado is one of 17 states that allow personal-belief or philosophical exemptions for kindergarten students, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, which is based in Denver. All but three states have exceptions for religious beliefs.

The new legislation in Colorado — which is expected to debut as soon as next week — would eliminate the personal exemption and make the process to claim other exemptions less convenient for parents, who can file statements at a child care and school facilities.

“We are trying to figure out how to balance that … to make sure we are not impeding on people’s religious liberty, but at the same time make sure we are creating a safe environment for kids,” Mullica said.

Opposition is mounting, and that includes the governor

Even before the bill is finalized, the opposition is mounting. Earlier this month, Mullica — who said he’s received threatening messages from opponents — hosted a forum with critics that drew more than 250 people.

Capitol Sunlight: A citizen’s guide to lawmaking and lobbying in Colorado

Pam Long of Castle Rock is one of those who attended. She spoke about her 15-year-old son who suffers from a lifelong brain injury related to a rare adverse reaction to a vaccine when he was younger.

Long, who is a board member at Colorado Health Choice Alliance, an organization dedicated to protecting opt-out rights for parents, expressed concern about doctors not being willing to write medical exemptions and the lack of disclosure about potential complications from vaccines. Her older son used a personal-belief exemption.

“(Vaccines) are not immune to all the other risk pharmaceuticals have, and we in our minds want to believe they have no risk and they are effective for all people,” she said in an interview. “There is no drug that doesn’t have risk.”

State Rep. Marc Catlin, a Montrose Republican on the health committee, said he supports the personal-belief exemption.

State Rep. Marc Catlin, R-Montrose, listens during the legislative session Jan. 4, 2019. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“Because we are Americans, that’s the main reason,” he said. “We can’t just continue to take pieces of what people can decide for themselves, no matter what side of the aisle you sit on. We still have to be responsible for ourselves to a certain degree.”

The objection in Polis’ mind is similar. The former five-term congressman from Boulder opposed mandatory vaccinations at the federal level, even though he immunized his two children and thinks it’s the best course. And now he objects to efforts to tighten the exemptions in Mullica’s bill.

“I am concerned about low vaccine rates and how low rates can affect public health,” Polis said in a statement issued by his office. “I think there are strategies we can employ to foster greater vaccination rates, through smart policymaking and greater public awareness, but I worry that a restrictive or top-down approach may actually backfire.”

The governor’s office did not respond to questions about what other strategies Polis would suggest, nor what he meant when he said it could backfire.

Experts tell parents: “Vaccinations are incredibly safe”

California eliminated its personal-belief exemption in 2015 only to see medical exemptions for vaccines rise — often for bogus reasons and offered at a high price, a study found.

O’Leary, an expert in vaccines at the CU Medical School, said a medical exemption is necessary only for the rarest of cases. And leading authorities, such as the American Medical Association, do not support any other exceptions.

“The facts are that vaccinations are incredibly safe and that the benefits of vaccines far outweigh the risks. And most parents see that and accept that,” O’Leary said.

In many cases, he added, “the parents who take a nonmedical exemption are doing so based on misinformation, and it’s putting children at risk,” he said.

A report from the Colorado Children’s Immunization Coalition, in coordination with Children’s Hospital Colorado, found that 558 children were hospitalized in 2017 for an illness that could have been prevented by a vaccine at a cost of more than $55 million. The majority were related to the flu, but the report also noted low rates for other immunizations, such as the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine.

“I’m an ER nurse … and I have had to take care of (children) because they had preventable things,” Mullica said.

“There’s a concern about parental rights and kind of that personal liberty piece,” he added. “But you also have to bring into the equation community safety — and that has to be addressed as well.”

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He fled China 30 years ago in search of the American dream. Now, he helps others build a better life in Greeley.

GREELEY — Yukwan Lee looked out to the lights of the gambling city Macau before gazing down into the black, cold water that could take him there.

He’d hiked murky trails for four nights to get to the cliff, using maps drawn by the people who escaped before him. The wind blew north, away from the noses of the German shepherds trained to bark when they caught a swimmer’s scent. The dark took care of the rest. Now was the time to jump.

If he did not jump, he would continue to make the equivalent of a penny in American money, for a day of hard labor on a farm. It cost that much to mail a letter. A pound of rice cost twice that.

“No one wants that life,” Lee said. “They knew that.”

Thirty years later, he has a life many would want. It’s the American dream, but in this case it’s the Chinese dream, too. He’s a Greeley business owner, a homeowner with two grown children and a retired man at 67 who enjoys puttering around in his garden. It is all far more than he expected, and in some ways, he believes it’s far more than he deserves, as he is a man without much education.

“How lucky am I?” Lee said with a smile.

And yet, there are some downtown business owners who believe that Lee deserves everything he gets. They believe he’s a big reason for their success, and many have stories similar to Lee’s own, immigrants with harrowing tales of escaping with nothing but their skin. Lee gave them a boost, they said, maybe because he got one himself when he came to Greeley in the early 1980s.

No one would mistake downtown Greeley for Pearl Street or the 16th Street Mall, but buoyed by bars, pizza places, unique shops (one business calls itself “The Nerd Store”), a downtown hotel, a bakery, coffeehouses, a steakhouse, a music theater and famous breweries such as WeldWerks, it’s about as hip an area as Greeley offers.

However, until recently, 10th Street seemed a bit like the middle child, as festivals in Lincoln Park, across from Eighth Street, and Friday Fests one block over, on Ninth Street, drew traffic to downtown, but not to Aaron and Sarah Wooten’s Cranford Tea Tavern. “Nick,” Lee’s nickname, is the guy responsible for changing that, Aaron said.

“Five years ago, when we opened, people wouldn’t walk this block at night,” Aaron said. “Now it feels like this is the last piece of the renaissance of downtown Greeley. It’s a very cool and diverse part of downtown, and it’s got Nick’s fingerprints all over it.”

Lee was 22 when he stared into the water. He had every reason to jump. He wanted a better life, and that was all he had, save for a few clothes he would leave behind to swim the mile to Macau. He was tired of being cold and hungry, and cold and hungry was all he could afford.

He also had every reason not to jump. He spent two months in prison after Chinese authorities caught him that summer hiking those trails to the ocean. He promised he would not go again and signed with a fingerprint. They released him and told him if he was caught again, they would keep him in prison for a long time, maybe for the rest of his life.

He would have to swim an hour, in his skivvies, in water cold enough to numb his fingers. He thought he could make the swim: He was strong from the farm, and he remembered how to swim from his time as a child, when his parents tossed him in a lake and told him to survive. Even so, he knew that cold water had killed many swimmers in the past.

Macau was only the first step. He arranged through the underground market for a boat in Macau to take him to Hong Kong on the promise that he would pay for it later. He would have to find a job and a place to live on his own.

Light from the window illuminates Yukwan “Nick” Lee as he sits in the Cranford Cove Tea Tavern on Feb. 5, 2019 in downtown Greeley. (Josh Polson, Special to The Colorado Sun)

If it seems like a choice, Lee makes it clear, when he tells the story, that it wasn’t much of one. Lee wanted freedom, but he really wanted to eat.

Maybe it wasn’t a choice. But it was definitely a risk. Lee loved a risk. He still does.

So Lee popped a handful of black pepper in his mouth, chewed and swallowed, hoping that the heat from the spice would make him welcome the icy waves. He steadied himself, stripped off his clothes and, on Dec. 18, 1973, at 2 a.m., he jumped.

Why does Aaron Wooten call Lee the savior of 10th Street? These days, downtown Greeley is doing much better than anyone had hoped, even 10th Street, and there is little doubt Lee could make more money on the rent he charges for the three buildings he now owns. He could probably make twice as much.

He’d have good reason to charge more. Lee has a nice nest egg — those buildings are paid off — but rent and Social Security are his main sources of income.

“He could be raising me big time,” Wooten said. “That’s not who he is.”

The low rent and his hands-off approach empower Wooten and business owners in his buildings to take chances, the same kind of risks that Lee enjoys and respects, and that led to 10th Street’s comeback, Wooten said.

Tea houses, for instance, had failed many times in Greeley, but Lee was not only supportive, he let Wooten do it his way. He didn’t care that Wooten tore down a wall and changed the place to fit his needs.

“He allows us to work hard and make it on our own,” Wooten said, “and I don’t know many who are like that. I’m not sure I’d be like that.”

When Wooten says “us,” he means himself and Abdi Warsame Abdirahman, whose family owns the Daris Uroon as a part of an enterprise, and Luis Ochoa, the owner of Hispano Appliances who will soon open the Millennium Event Center in the same location upstairs, a project he’s worked on for 10 years.

Yukwan “Nick” Lee stands in front of the shop of one of his longest running tenants on Feb. 5 in Greeley. Lee has rented the property to the same owner for more than a decade. (Josh Polson, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Lee doesn’t hand-pick his clients. Wooten is a white man who also owns the downtown steakhouse. Ochoa and Abdirahman are immigrants, and even if Ochoa says, admiringly, that Lee is “on his side,” Lee doesn’t treat any of his clients differently. In fact, in this age where immigrants are questioned harder than they’ve been in decades, Lee proudly says he gets along with everyone, “the black man, the white man, the yellow man and the brown man.”

Ochoa rented the building from Lee 13 years ago, and now Ochoa calls him a friend, not just a landlord. They got to know each other, he said, swapping stories of their escapes.

Lee emerged from the water, took a boat to Hong Kong and found a job delivering coffee in the daytime. At night, he slept on tables he pushed together.

It doesn’t sound glamorous, but life was good compared to the scraps in China. He went from $2.40 a month to $300. He sent some of the money to his parents and a chunk to a friend who helped him pay for the boat that got him there, and he still had enough left over to fill his belly every night and stay warm.

Hong Kong offered him political refuge, but his mother was scared for him to be so close to China. When he had a chance to go to America, after a friend from China offered to let him work in his restaurant in Jackson, California, he took it in 1977. He could not speak any English.

“I didn’t even know ‘sorry’ or ‘thank you,’” Lee said.

But he pieced enough together to work as a waiter, first with the Chinese customers, and then the Americans, and life got ridiculously better. He made $400 a month. It was an embarrassment of riches.

Two years later in 1979, he moved to Aurora and made $3,000 a month working as a cook for a restaurant called Yep’s Dynasty. And yet, that desire for a better life, and his penchant for a fun risk, never went away: A cafe for rent in downtown Greeley in 1982 tingled both those needs.

Lee became an American citizen that same year, and like most Americans, he had a dream. He wanted to be his own boss. He thought of himself as a self-disciplined person. He liked his life being up to him. He chose a restaurant because that was what he knew. There wasn’t much to it, he said. Make good food and charge a fair price.

He remodeled the cafe in two months at night and worked in Aurora during the day, and then he took all his vacation, two weeks, and gave himself an ultimatum. He would smile at customers, and he would cook 14 hours a day, and his wife, Mui Kuen, with a kid on her back, would chop vegetables in between feedings. He would serve Hong Kong food, and it would cost $2.50 a meal, about half of what the other Asian restaurant in town charged. They would need to do $50 a day in lunch. He had no money to advertise: He hoped, in two weeks, that the word would spread.

The first day, he did $100 in lunch, and he gave his two weeks notice to Yep’s Dynasty and began cooking for himself. He moved his family to downtown Greeley. He and his family stayed below the cafe. It was more like a dungeon from “Game of Thrones” than a home. Water dripped from the ceiling into their beds. There was no window. The conditions were awful and not really legal.

During the day, from his 9 a.m. start until the place closed 12 hours later, he cooked, his wife chopped and a waitress carried food to hungry customers. As he cooked, he called his customers by their names, and he sang happy Chinese songs, even on weekends and holidays such as Thanksgiving, when he let anyone eat at his place for free.

In 1982, when he opened that first cafe on Ninth Street, downtown Greeley was not hip. It was desolate. Yet he did well because most of those customers were students from the University of Northern Colorado who didn’t want luxurious, hip restaurants as much as cheap meals. Several wound up working for him when he moved to a larger place on 10th Street a couple years later. He let them do their homework during their shifts, as long as they got their work done, and he paid them by the day if that’s what they needed. His family stayed in that basement, too, which was nicer. It didn’t leak. When his wife got pregnant again, they moved into an apartment.

Yukwan “Nick” Lee talks with tenant, Luis Ochoa in front of the Millennium Event Center on Feb. 5 in downtown Greeley. (Josh Polson, Special to The Colorado Sun)

When he had a chance to buy the building in 1985, Lee thought it was a good price, even if downtown was dead. The building was near the courthouse, and since that wasn’t going anywhere, he thought downtown probably wouldn’t die, either, even if it looked like it might at the time.

He and his wife didn’t have much education, and in his mind, they already had more than they could reasonably expect. They had their freedom and their own restaurant in their own building and a place to sleep. Every day, as he sang, Lee said one thought went through his head: How lucky am I?

Ochoa, Lee’s friend and tenant for 13 years, has his own near-death dash for freedom, only the enemy was the Mexican cartel.

He was 38 and living in Juarez, a city just south of El Paso, Texas, with his wife and two daughters. Many agree that Juarez is one of the most dangerous in the world because of the cartels.

Ochoa ran an auto shop when members of a cartel grabbed him and told him to get in a van. Ochoa spotted two men in the van with machine guns, and his stomach clenched. He thought that if he got in, he probably wouldn’t survive the day.

He took Taekwondo most of his life, and he used it to push his captor against the van doors, and then he just ran and prayed the bullets wouldn’t hit him.

He got away. He called his wife, Soledad, and told her to collect their two little girls because they were leaving that day.

“I left my shop, cars, everything and everyone,” Ochoa said. “I never went back. The cartel kills people like flies, man.”

Ochoa started his appliance business in downtown Greeley, and lifted by Lee’s low rent, he began to dream of the event center.

The low rent helps, but Lee has also paid for half of the repairs in the building, including a new heating system that dropped Ochoa’s gas bill from $3,500 a month to less than $500, to make the event center possible. Ochoa put the money he saved from Lee’s kindness to the event center.

“We’ve been working on it for 10 years,” he said. “We want it to be classy.”

As an example of their friendship, Ochoa spoke about a trip the two took together with their families to Cancun.

“He wanted to see the real Mexico,” Ochoa said and laughed, “so he said he wanted to go with a Mexican.”

It’s not lost on Ochoa that they have similar backgrounds. “He’s on our side,” Ochoa said. This is what Wooten loves about Lee. Wooten sees Lee in himself, too.

“He’s empowering people like himself,” Wooten said, even as he’s also empowering people such as Wooten, a white man who now owns the Chophouse steak house in addition to their thriving tea business.

Yukwan Lee sits at in the patio area behind one of the properties he rents out during a visit on Feb. 5, 2019. (Josh Polson, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Lee shrugs off the savior role. Charging them less was merely a business decision. He said the low rent helps him keep tenants, and if he keeps them long enough, they tend to take care of the building and maybe even improve it. Ochoa, he said, is a good example of that.

“Financially, I’m OK,” Lee said. “I’m not so greedy that I need to charge a lot.”

But maybe it’s more than that. After all, Lee’s never really forgotten where he came from.

When Lee opened his first restaurant, he had enough money to keep it open for two weeks. It’s doubtful he would have had that much time if it weren’t for Bob Gilbert.

Gilbert, a bank president in Greeley, owned downtown back then, in the early ’80s, and he charged Lee $150 a month in rent, which included water, gas and power. The gas itself, Lee said with a grin, cost more than that.

Downtown was depressed back then, but Gilbert could have, and maybe should have, charged Lee twice as much. He gave Lee a chance. Lee knew that, and he appreciated Gilbert for it. When he would drive by Gilbert’s large house, Lee looked at it with pride, not jealousy. The house, he thought to himself, was fitting for a great man.

Lee would eventually move his restaurant, and he bought the building from the owner, who also gave him a break: He financed it to Lee at no interest.

Lee loves uncertainty because it makes you work harder, he said. But he also considers himself a lucky person. He’s won practically every gamble he’s taken, and that’s because of the people around him as much as his own good business sense.

Those people, of course, include his first wife. She got breast cancer and died after 30 years of marriage. He is happily married again, to Jing Jing, who worked as a pediatrician in China before meeting Lee on the internet and marrying him three years ago.

But it still makes him sad to talk about his first wife. They had good times and raised two children, Cathy of Windsor and Jefferson of Portland, Oregon. She worked hard and was a sweet, loving wife and mother. When they bought their first house together, in 1986, it was a beautiful feeling, and every day, Lee walked around the house and thought about his good fortune.

He is lucky to be in America, he said, even at a time when immigrants are questioned by people as powerful as the president. He’s never felt people look down on him, save for one time, when he drove a beaten-down truck with a loose door into a downtown parking lot and later found a note on his windshield to keep that junk out of the lot.

He saw how different it was from China in 1981, when President Ronald Reagan was shot. He expected chaos, but he went to work anyway and was shocked at the empty streets. Back in China, people would have rioted. By the time the 9/11 attack happened nearly 20 years later, Lee wasn’t worried.

“This country has such a strong foundation,” he said. “It is very strong. No one person can do anything to take it over.

“I feel safe here.”

He still tries to fit in as much as he can. He studies English at home, even though daily conversations aren’t really a problem anymore.

“I love audiobooks,” he said. “Sometimes I don’t understand all of it, but I love all of it.”

Yukwan “Nick” Lee stands in the sunlight at one of his properties on Feb. 5, 2019, in Greeley. Lee escaped extreme poverty in China in 1973 with hopes of starting a new life in Hong Kong and eventually in the United States. (Josh Polson, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Lee left for China the first part of November. He returned in mid-January. That’s a long time to spend in a country that he once risked his life to escape, but China is much different now: Not many, he said, are cold or hungry.

“I don’t have any hatred at all,” Lee said. “It’s my home. My ancestors are all from there. They forced me out. They probably do me good, you know?”

Yes. China forced him to take a chance. He eventually got that chance, and now he is happy to give others a chance. All people need is a chance, he said. What they do with it is up to them.

He now owns a home, one he bought in 1996, with a deck he built with wood he gathered from the trash pile at construction sites, and a gate he made that tells people “welcome” on one side and “so long” on the other, and a big white truck out front, with a secure door. A hailstorm shredded his treasured garden last season, but that’s the kind of stuff that happens to homeowners. Hail, he said, is his biggest worry now.

“How lucky am I?” he said.

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Backcountry skier killed in “especially tragic” slide near Telluride, becoming Colorado’s 5th avalanche death of season

A 47-year-old man was killed Tuesday in a large avalanche near Telluride triggered by snowboarders on a slope above him, authorities say, becoming Colorado’s fifth snow-slide death of the 2018-19 season.

Salvador Garcia-Atance, who was backcountry skiing on a well-traveled trail above Telluride, was the third man killed in a four-day period following heavy snowfall across the high country.

“This accident is especially tragic because this person didn’t trigger the avalanche,” said Ethan Greene, who leads the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.

Another view of the slide Tuesday near Telluride that killed a man. (Provided by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center)

Authorities say Garcia-Atance was reported missing on Tuesday afternoon after setting out on a backcountry trip, skinning from the valley floor in Telluride up the mellow trail heading into the Bear Creek drainage, prompting a search team from the Telluride Resort ski patrol to scour the area.

After two hours and with nightfall looming, the team couldn’t find anyone. On Wednesday morning, search crews returned to the area and found Garcia-Atance after using poles to probe the debris field.

The Colorado Avalanche Information Center reports the slide broke 75-feet wide and ran 2,000 vertical feet. The debris field was 30-feet deep and 100-feet wide.

“Of course this is not the outcome any of us were hoping for and on behalf of myself and all of us involved in this mission, we extend our sincerest condolences to Mr. Garcia-Atance’s family,” San Miguel County Sheriff Bill Masters said in a written statement.

Officials believe the slide happened between 10 a.m. and 11 a.m. on Tuesday in a couloir.

MORE: Aspen-area men killed in avalanche near Crested Butte, bringing Colorado’s 2018-2019 avalanche death toll to 4

Greene said it’s unusual that someone is killed in a backcountry avalanche they didn’t trigger.

“That’s different than the usual accidents that we have,” he told The Colorado Sun. “That’s something with more and more people in the backcountry we are worried about. It’s especially important in a year like this (with so much snowfall) to think about who’s around you and if you’re putting somebody else at risk.”

The San Miguel Sheriff’s Office tweeted late Tuesday that the slide poured into Bear Creek from somewhere around Temptation Bowl, which borders Telluride ski area but is separated by a boundary rope preventing access. Temptation Bowl has been the location of several avalanche fatalities dating back to the late 1980s.

The sheriff office’s tweet said the slide appeared to originate near Tempter Chute, just below the Telluride ski area boundary and the slide was “believed to be caused by snowboarders skiing off the Telluride ski area into the Bear Creek Preserve.”

“We certainly have talked with them and the investigation on their access and location is something we are looking at,” said San Miguel Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Susan Lilly. 

Greene said a final report on the Telluride slide should be out in about a week. A press release by the San Miguel Sheriff’s Office on Wednesday said Garcia-Atance’s death is under investigation.

“We’ve been trying to warn people about the conditions and, you know, the large number of close calls we saw in January and the potential for accidents in February,” Greene said. “Unfortunately, we have seen a succession of fatal accidents.”

Over the weekend, two Aspen-area men were killed in an avalanche near Crested Butte. Last month, two men were killed in separate slides outside of Aspen and Silverton, respectively.

This season’s avalanche death total is the highest in Colorado since the 2015-16 season. Last year, three people were killed in Colorado snow slides.

In October, Garcia-Atance reached out to Telluride Daily Planet reporter Rob Story with photos of his early season skiing on Telluride. He had pedaled his mountain bike up to ski resort’s snow-packed upper bowls and later rode the gondola to hike into Revelation Bowl.

“I could not believe the quality of the fresh snow up there, not only that, the amount of snow. I would say 2 feet of accumulated snow or even more on some portions of the run. I was so excited, that I did three runs on Majestic and Golden Cross,” Garcia-Atance told Story, who quoted him as a father of four who recently moved to Telluride from Houston to ski.

“It just really shined through how much he loved backcountry skiing,” Story said on Wednesday.

Greene urged people to pay attention to avalanche forecasts and get educated about the conditions in the backcountry. He also said it’s imperative they have the proper equipment to handle a slide should they or a friend be caught in one.

“We hope that this is the last accident of the year,” he said, “but we are at five now and the average is six.”

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50 million gallons of polluted water pours daily from mine sites across the U.S., including Colorado

By Matthew Brown, The Associated Press

RIMINI, Mont. — Every day many millions of gallons of water loaded with arsenic, lead and other toxic metals flow from some of the most contaminated mining sites in the U.S. and into surrounding streams and ponds without being treated, The Associated Press has found.

That torrent is poisoning aquatic life and tainting water supplies in Montana, California, Colorado, Oklahoma and at least five other states.

The pollution is a legacy of how the mining industry was allowed to operate in the U.S. for more than a century. Companies that built mines for silver, lead, gold and other “hardrock” minerals could move on once they were no longer profitable, leaving behind tainted water that still leaks out of the mines or is cleaned up at taxpayer expense.

Using data from public records requests and independent researchers, the AP examined 43 mining sites under federal oversight, some containing dozens or even hundreds of individual mines.

The records show that at average flows, more than 50 million gallons of contaminated wastewater streams daily from the sites. In many cases, it runs untreated into nearby groundwater, rivers and ponds — a roughly 20-million-gallon daily dose of pollution that could fill more than 2,000 tanker trucks.

MORE: Three years after the Gold King Mine spill there’s no fix to leaky abandoned mines. What’s the holdup?

The remainder of the waste is captured or treated in a costly effort that will need to carry on indefinitely, for perhaps thousands of years, often with little hope for reimbursement.

The volumes vastly exceed the release from Colorado’s Gold King Mine disaster in 2015, when a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency cleanup crew inadvertently triggered the release of 3 million gallons (11.4 million liters) of mustard-colored mine sludge, fouling rivers in three states.

At many mines, the pollution has continued decades after their enlistment in the federal Superfund cleanup program for the nation’s most hazardous sites, which faces sharp cuts under President Donald Trump.

Federal officials have raised fears that at least six of the sites examined by AP could have blowouts like the one at Gold King.

Mine waste mixes with runoff at the Gold King Mine. (Provided by the Environmental Protection Agency)

Some sites feature massive piles or impoundments of mine waste known as tailings. A tailings dam collapse in Brazil last month killed at least 169 people and left 140 missing. A similar 2014 accident in British Columbia swept millions of cubic yards of contaminated mud into a nearby lake, resulting in one of Canada’s worst environmental disasters.

But even short of a calamitous accident, many mines pose the chronic problem of relentless pollution.

AP also found mining sites where untreated water harms the environment or threatens drinking water supplies in North and South Carolina, Vermont, Missouri and Oregon.

Tainted wells

In mountains outside the Montana capital of Helena, about 30 households can’t drink their tap water because groundwater was polluted by about 150 abandoned gold, lead and copper mines that operated from the 1870s until 1953.

The community of Rimini was added to the Superfund list in 1999. Contaminated soil in residents’ yards was replaced, and the EPA has provided bottled water for a decade. But polluted water still pours from the mines and into Upper Tenmile Creek.

“The fact that bottled water is provided is great,” said 30-year Rimini resident Catherine Maynard, a natural resources analyst for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “Where it falls short is it’s not piped into our home. Water that’s piped into our home is still contaminated water. Washing dishes and bathing — that metal-laden water is still running through our pipes.”

Estimates of the number of such abandoned mine sites range from 161,000 in 12 western states to as many as 500,000 nationwide. At least 33,000 have degraded the environment, according to the Government Accountability Office, and thousands more are discovered every year.

Officials have yet to complete work including basic risk analyses on about 80 percent of abandoned mining sites on federal lands. Most are controlled by the Bureau of Land Management, which under Trump is seeking to consolidate mine cleanups with another program and cut their combined 2019 spending from $35 million to $13 million.

An abandoned mining site in Clear Creek County. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Perpetual pollution

Problems at some sites are intractable.

Among them:

— In eastern Oklahoma’s Tar Creek mining district, waterways are devoid of life and elevated lead levels persist in the blood of children despite a two-decade effort to clean up lead and zinc mines. More than $300 million has been committed since 1983, but only a small fraction of the impacted land has been reclaimed and contaminated water continues to flow.

— At northern California’s Iron Mountain Mine, cleanup teams battle to contain highly acidic water that percolates through a former copper and zinc mine and drains into a Sacramento River tributary. The mine discharged six tons of toxic sludge daily before an EPA cleanup. Authorities now spend $5 million a year to remove poisonous sludge that had caused massive fish kills, and they expect to keep at it forever.

— In Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, site of the Gold King blowout, some 400 abandoned or inactive mine sites contribute an estimated 15 million gallons (57 million liters) of acid mine drainage per day.

AP also found mining sites where untreated water harms the environment or threatens drinking water supplies in North and South Carolina, Vermont, Missouri and Oregon.

This landscape of polluted sites occurred under mining industry rules largely unchanged since the 1872 Mining Act.

State and federal laws in recent decades have held companies more accountable than in the past, but critics say huge loopholes all but ensure that some of today’s mines will foul waterways or require perpetual cleanups.

To avoid a catastrophe like Gold King, EPA officials now require advance approval for work on many mining sites. But they acknowledge they’re only dealing with a small portion of the problem.

“We have been trying to play a very careful game of prioritization,” said Dana Stalcup, deputy director of the Superfund program. “We know the Superfund program is not the answer to the hundreds of thousands of mines out there, but the mines we are working on we want to do them the best we can.”

The 43 sites examined by AP are mining locations for which officials and researchers have reliable estimates of polluted water releases. Officials said flow rates at the sites vary.

Average flows were unavailable for nine sites that only had high and low estimates of how much polluted water flowed out. For those sites, the AP used the lower estimates for its analysis.

Questions over who should pay

To date, the EPA has spent an estimated $4 billion on mining cleanups. Under Trump, the agency has identified a small number of Superfund sites for heightened attention after cleanup efforts stalled or dragged on for years. They include five mining sites examined by AP.

Former EPA assistant administrator Mathy Stanislaus said more money is needed to address mining pollution on a systematic basis, rather than jumping from one emergency response to another.

“The piecemeal approach is just not working,” said Stanislaus, who oversaw the Superfund program for almost eight years ending in 2017.

Democrats have sought unsuccessfully to create a special cleanup fund for old hardrock mine sites, with fees paid by the mining industry. Such a fund has been in place for coal mines since 1977, with more than $11 billion in fees collected and hundreds of sites reclaimed.

The mining industry has resisted doing the same for hardrock mines, and Republicans in Congress have blocked the Democratic proposals.

MORE: Cory Gardner, Scott Tipton bring new “good Samaritan” bill to address abandoned mines and stoke solution for $50B problem

Montana Mining Association director Tammy Johnson acknowledged abandoned mines have left a legacy of pollution, but added that companies still in operation should not be forced to pay for those problems.

“Back in the day there really wasn’t a lot known about acid mine drainage,” she said. “I just don’t think that today’s companies bear the responsibility.”

In 2017, the EPA proposed requiring companies still operating mines to post cleanup bonds or offer other financial assurances so taxpayers don’t end up footing cleanup bills. The Trump administration halted the rule , but environmental groups are scheduled to appear in federal court next month in a lawsuit that seeks to revive it.

“When something gets on a Superfund site, that doesn’t mean it instantly and magically gets cleaned up,” said Earthjustice attorney Amanda Goodin. “Having money immediately available from a responsible party would be a game changer.”

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Sunriser: What’s different in Colorado’s investigation of the Catholic Church, why A-Basin quit Epic Pass, the new battle over GMO foods and much more

Compiled by Eric Lubbers, eric@coloradosun.com
CTO/Newsletter Wrangler, @brofax

Good morning from the frigid streets of Denver. I’ve had the pleasure (?) of being outside in the early dark for various reasons over the past few days, and I can say that it has been the coldest I’ve been in years. And I love it. It’s nice when Colorado lives up to the postcard vision that people outside of the state have of us.

That said, if cold isn’t your thing, just think warm thoughts and dive into the tub of news we have in store for you today. Let’s simmer this chili, shall we?

Top five ways you can support The Sun:

Every dollar you give goes right back into supporting journalism.

 


 

>> ABOVE THE FOLD  

 

Catholic dioceses are opening their records to an investigator to account for alleged sex abuse

“The damage inflicted upon young people and their families by sexual abuse, especially when it’s committed by a trusted person, like a priest, is profound. While this process will certainly include painful moments and cannot ever fully restore what was lost, we pray that it will begin the healing process.”
— Archbishop Samuel Aquila

The wave of sex abuse investigations hitting the Catholic church worldwide has come to Colorado. But, as Jesse Paul and Jennifer Brown write, Colorado’s is different from other states. For one, rather than an investigation by law enforcement, the voluntary investigation will be conducted by former U.S. Attorney Bob Troyer, with his fees paid by Colorado’s three dioceses and private, anonymous donors. There is a lot more to this story than the headline, so make sure to click through to read our report.

>> Read how the investigation will be conducted and what its goals are here.

>> MORE: If you’ve been following the scandal in other states, you might wonder why Colorado didn’t just convene a grand jury like Pennsylvania did last year, leading to blockbuster revelations of decades of coverups. Well, things work differently in Colorado, as Jesse and Jennifer explain here.

 

What really led A-Basin to quit Epic Pass?

“We are pretty darn full on weekends and we don’t need any more people on weekends. If anything, we could probably whittle those numbers down a little bit.”
— Arapahoe Basin’s Alan Henceroth

Call it too much of a good thing, but the announcement that after 10 years of partnership, Arapahoe Basin was ending its relationship with Vail Resorts and its Epic Pass shocked skiers and boarders. But for anyone who has tried to visit A-Basin on the weekends, it wasn’t surprising.

>> Jason Blevins has the numbers, and the background on the breakup and why the ski area is ready to go it alone during the Pass Wars.

 

GMO food labels are coming. But the battle lines have already shifted.

Nikki Weathers holds popcorn kernels grown on her farm near Yuma. (Austin Humphreys, Special to The Colorado Sun)

You’ve probably been on the receiving (or giving) end of a conversation about genetically modified organisms in food. The battles over them, from those pointing out that humans have been genetically “modifying” food for thousands of years to those armed with numbers about cancer, have been heated. But as contributor Michael Booth writes, the new federal standards to label “bioengineered” foods have just moved the battle lines for both food safety advocates and those who say engineering is essential to feed a growing world population.

>> Read more, get a preview of the new labels and learn just how much of Colorado’s corn is GMO here.

 


 

>> DON’T MISS  

 

Rotting vegetables, if they’re not properly composted, make methane as they decompose, a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

 


 

>> THE SHORTLIST

 

Left, the loggia at Redstone Castle in Pitkin County in a photograph dating to the early 1900s. Right, the same loggia in 2019. (Left: Historic photo; Right: Nina Riggio, Special to The Colorado Sun)

// Jason Blevins has the story of one of the most impressive historic renovations in Colorado, the iconic Redstone Castle, and how numerous historic preservation easements helped put it in the hands of just the right buyers. // The Colorado Sun

// Way back in the early days of The Sun (September 2018) we published a series on just how bad Colorado is at recycling and why the state’s systems are so tedious. In it, we referenced the fact that China, previously the largest buyer of recycling materials in the world, suddenly started restricting imports. Thanks to this excellent episode of 99 Percent Invisible, I know a whole lot more about why China made that move, including the ominous code name “Operation National Sword.” // The Colorado Sun, 99PI

// Andrew Kenney at The Denver Post has been following the story of cyclist Gary Suydam since his days at Denverite (start here for the backstory on the crash that changed his life) through Suydam’s historic $52.5 million verdict awarded by a Colorado jury. If you ride (or drive) in Denver, you need to read both stories. // Denverite, The Denver Post

// The Rocky Mountain Raptor program in Fort Collins is rescuing more birds than ever (which is both good and bad). // Coloradoan

// This series of shorts from Gabrielle Bryant for PBS, “The New Black Experience” is a really great way to celebrate Black History Month (by focusing on the present and the future). // Colorado Public Television

// A drunk woman was pulled over in Aurora, but after she indicated she was friends with the police chief, the officer turned off his body camera and gave her a ride home. CBS4 has the story. // CBS4

// Up in Craig, building codes and blighted homes are in the center of a debate over the future of the city’s development. // Craig Daily Press

// Robot Alert: Sphero is giving toy robots another go with RVR (pronounced “Rover”), a rugged wheeled creature to play and program. The Boulder maker, which discontinued its line of Disney-licensed robots last year, also partnered with Niwot neighbor SparkFun Electronics on tool kits and is supporting schools with a “Get a Bot, Give a Bot” plan. // Kickstarter

 


 

>> TODAY’S THING

The Thing: Pretty much the entire discography of Sharon Van Etten (Here’s a good place to start on Spotify or you can just watch a few YouTube videos)

Why You Might Like It: There’s this thing I do when I’m at a concert. It’s a kind of recurring, situational daydream. From a party rock band on a tiny stage to an ornate arena show, I try to imagine picking up various people from the history of art and music and dropping them next to me to get their opinion of what they’re seeing. Sometimes it’s a young David Byrne or Sister Rosetta Tharpe or Mozart or Curtis Mayfield. It’s a way to appreciate how music keeps changing through invention and reinvention and making old sounds blend with new.

All of that is to say that every single imaginary artist I brought with me to the Gothic Theatre on Monday night for Sharon Van Etten was gobsmacked by her performance. It’s not quite been a decade since her debut, but in that time she’s written more songs that can literally make you forget to breathe than just about any modern artist. Start poking around her discography, I promise you won’t be disappointed.

Editor’s note: Every Sunriser will include one … thing … to cap off our time together. The Thing will be just about anything, like a TV show or a book or a particularly cool dog toy.

 


 

And just like that, you’re done with a nice, meaty Wednesday Sunriser. This was a long one, so pat yourself on the back for getting this far.

You’ve seen me say this before, but it’s always true: You are the best form of marketing we’ve got. We want as many Coloradans as possible to read our news, so sharing the things you read with your friends, family, co-workers, neighbors, study groups and roommates not only helps them know more about their state, but helps us grow our community. So thanks in advance!

Have a great afternoon and we’ll meet back here on Friday.

— Eric



GMO food labels are coming. But with most products already using modified ingredients, battle lines have shifted.

While you were eating, some of the biggest controversies over genetically modified foods have largely been settled.

At least nine out of 10 kernels of corn grown in Colorado are GMO, as are 98 percent of the sugar beets and much of the alfalfa, canola and other commodity foods. Modified potatoes that can better handle aphids or a good bruising are on the way to the San Luis Valley. Altered super-growth salmon are now on the Canadian market, soon to ship over the border to the U.S.

Consumers who eat foods made with corn syrup, most cooking oils or refined sugar — just about everyone — are ingesting materials grown from GMO seeds.

And after years of consumer protest demanding that GMO foods at least be labeled as such — including a failed 2014 ballot issue in Colorado — nationwide labeling is now the law of the land, with USDA-approved symbols and codes set to appear in grocery stores next year.

New U.S. Department of Agriculture labels are designed to help consumers recognize food products that have been genetically modified.

With many of the most common commodities nearly exclusively GMO, “there isn’t much room for growth above 90 percent,” said Patrick Byrne, a professor of plant breeding and genetics at Colorado State University in Fort Collins.

That doesn’t mean food and safety advocates have given up. They are still fighting to toughen up the federal labeling rules announced in December, and seeking stringent government review of the relatively new food production process of “gene editing.”

“GMO foods should absolutely be labeled. The issue is incredibly simple, if GMOs are safe there is no reason not to label products that contain them and the industry would have absolutely nothing to hide,” said Elana Amsterdam, a popular Colorado food blogger and cookbook author at elanaspantry.com.

“The new labeling law is not enough since it allows highly refined ingredients from GMO crops to be used in food products without labeling them as such,” Amsterdam said. “This is the opposite of transparency for the consumer.”

Gene editing versus genetic modification

In gene editing, one existing DNA trait is turned off — for example, to stop potatoes from turning brown. Genetically modified foods, by contrast, add traits from a different species — in salmon, for example, adding genes from a less-desirable fish that eats and grows faster year-round.

Battles also are brewing over Roundup, the pesticide most associated with the GMO controversy. Most corn and some other crops use seeds modified to survive when Roundup is applied to fields as a weedkiller. Food advocates and some European health officials have raised alarms about the cancer-causing potential of Roundup’s key ingredient, glyphosate.

A $289 million jury judgment in August for a California groundskeeper who said Roundup’s glyphosate caused his cancer further fueled public activism against the chemical. In statements after the verdict, Monsanto said it was appealing and that “researchers have conducted more than 800 scientific studies and reviews that support the safe use of glyphosate.”

While Roundup’s maker, Monsanto and its parent, Bayer, say glyphosate at current levels poses no harm, the Colorado Public Interest Research Group and others are sponsoring chemical tests of common drinks using corn syrup to show alleged traces of glyphosate. CoPIRG says the group’s national coalition will be out with the test results soon.

In the meantime, local fights over Roundup application have stirred Boulder and Colorado Springs, among other cities. The city of Boulder stopped spraying glyphosate products on open space, and Boulder County continues to work toward removing GMO crops from open space leased to local farmers.  

CoPIRG embarked on the food testing as part of a strategic campaign to educate consumers before “going city to city” demanding laws, said Colorado director Danny Katz. “We’re heading in that direction as we try to better demonstrate this is really dangerous.”

Colorado farmers, meanwhile, feel they are on an education campaign of their own: Teaching consumers that they employ GMOs and genetic editing to produce healthy, cheaper food, and to lower their pesticide use.

Plant and animal breeding for characteristics

GMO defenders are also eager to point out that genetic modifications are as old as agriculture itself. Humans have always tried to speed up the mutation-and-natural-selection cycle by cross-breeding plants, grafting trees and selectively breeding animals for better traits. The newer science does not taint the genetics of consumable food, they point out.

“There have been so many scientific studies that there’s no difference” for health or nutrition between GMO crops and traditional seeds, said Nikki Weathers, whose family raises cattle and grows corn for silage, alfalfa and other hay outside of Yuma. She said she is proud that her generation and her father-in-law’s generation “embraced that technology.”

Nikki Weathers poses for a photo in a field of last year’s corn crop on her farm near Yuma, Colorado, on Feb. 13, 2019. Weathers and her family raise cattle and grow both GMO and non-GMO corn. (Austin Humphreys, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“That’s what we have to do to raise enough food for a growing population, and to afford enough corn to feed our cattle,” Weathers said.

As for labeling, Weathers said she was previously skeptical because there’s no nutritional difference, and so it just seemed like a marketing tactic for some holistic foods companies to raise their prices for a “non-GMO” label. She would know — her family raises non-GMO popcorn sold under the Snappy brand name with that fact highlighted, even though there is not currently any GMO popcorn grown in the U.S.

Now that the federal rules will label GMOs, Weathers hopes consumers will return her trust to a U.S. food system that has “the safest food in the world.”

“As a mom I would only ever feed my family things that are safe, and raise food the same way,” she said.

National labeling does not satisfy food safety advocates, who wanted states to be allowed to develop their own stringent labeling laws before President Barack Obama signed a pre-empting federal bill in 2016. The rules don’t require a GMO label if the food is so refined that GMO markers can no longer be detected, which means large volumes of consumer goods with corn syrup, sugar and cooking oils won’t have the label, said Food & Water Watch’s Patty Lovera.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which wrote the final rules, is also allowing various forms of a “label” with options including a scannable code that says nothing about GMO, or an offer to get an explanatory text from the manufacturer.

“You shouldn’t have to have a smart phone and a digital plan that’s not maxed out in order to find out what’s in your food,” Lovera said. “It’s not strong enough to give people what they need.”

Still unclear is how USDA will handle the new generation of modified foods that are genetically “edited.” Developers of those seeds say there’s no need for the foods to go through the extensive USDA and FDA reviews given to GMO crops because there is no cross-species introduction, only a canceled-out gene. Food & Water Watch and allies want all such foods to have full government review.

“We’d like to know more about what else did this ‘switch’ do that you turned off,” Lovera said. “We feel there’s a lot more to the genetic code than that.”

Incoming products with genetic modifications include potatoes that don’t turn brown when they are bruised, primarily raised in the U.S. northwest; a new variety of corn made drought tolerant by switching off a defensive marker; non-browning mushrooms; and salmon, referred to derisively by Alaskan members of Congress as “frankenfish,” that has been approved in Canada and is on its way to U.S. markets.

San Luis Valley potato growers are not yet using the non-browning potatoes, which are controlled by Idaho’s J.R. Simplot Company, said James Ehrlich, executive director of the Colorado Potato Administrative Committee in Monte Vista. They are more interested in creating a potato that would resist an aphid that cuts into yields, Ehrlich said.

“That would be huge for us,” he said. The growers are talking about funding research projects on the idea with Colorado State University specialists.

As for labeling, Ehrlich said he is personally in favor of promoting transparency and consumer comfort, though valley farmers debate whether the labels raise more questions than they answer.

Potato growers would be happy to show curious consumers how farms work in the valley, he added. “If they want to know what’s in their food, they should visit farmers.”   

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The very old (and very new) works drawing more young viewers to the Denver Center for the Performing Arts

With persistent talk in theater circles about the need to attract younger, more diverse audiences, it is perhaps ironic that the first big play of Chris Coleman’s tenure as Denver Center Theatre Company artistic director is an adaptation of an 800-page 19th century Russian novel.

How many millennials were turned off by the mere title: “Anna Karenina”? Apparently, the three-hour romantic tragedy is selling.

“It’s fascinating to see who comes,” Coleman said. “We’ve had lots of people in their 40s, 30s, 20s, people who feel they should have read the book, or the wife drags the husband…”

He watched a young girl as she experienced the play with a parent and participated in a talk-back afterward. She was fascinated by the depiction of literature’s most famous train.

The adaptation, running through Sunday, is pitched to those who haven’t read Tolstoy. (Personally, I can say the three hours flew by as the two storylines intersected — one of love and lust, the other of the class divide and social unrest at the time — and the characters rich inner thoughts were voiced by other characters in a filling borscht of a production.)

Coleman, who directed “Anna Karenina,” opted not to do Shakespeare for his first giant cast production, saying the choice might have felt “obvious.”

So, how does Anna K work toward recruiting younger, hipper audiences to theater? “I’m a history nut,” Coleman said. “One of the things a classic does is allow audiences to see our own lives more clearly. The distance between the values, customs, relationships of the time is revealing. To me, that is one of the joys.”

The fact that “Anna Karenina” is considered one of the 10 best novels ever written doesn’t hurt — Coleman wouldn’t say so, but call it the guilt factor, pushing people to feel they should at least know the story.

In making the switch to Denver from Portland Center Stage, where he was art director for 17 years, Coleman has found it “delightfully surprising” in his first season here that “people show up.” In terms of attendance for Anna K, “we are blowing it out of the water,” compared to  when he directed the production in Portland.

He attributes that success partly to the Denver Center for the Performing Arts’ marketing team’s use of new technologies to reach people, “but there is a history of cultural participation in this city that is real.”

The other surprise since moving here last year with his husband, actor Rodney Hicks, is more obvious. Coleman knows it sounds dorky, “but, people here seem genuinely open and cheerful. That’s not how I would characterize people in the Pacific Northwest. People there are stingy with their enthusiasm. I seriously wonder if it’s the weather.”

Neyla Pekarek performing part of “Rattlesnake Kate,” her new musical about the Weld County legend Rattlesnake Kate Slaughterback, at Mixed Taste last summer in Denver. The musical, commissioned by Denver Center for the Performing Arts, will premiere Saturday at the Colorado New Play Summit in Denver. (Photo provided by Adams VisCom)

Enthusiasm for the 14th annual Colorado New Play Summit, concluding this weekend, is running high, particularly for a new musical that will have its concert reading Saturday.

“Rattlesnake Kate”  is a collaboration of Neyla Pekarek (former cellist and vocalist of folk-rock band The Lumineers) and playwright Karen Hartman. The song cycle tells the story of Kate Slaughterback who, on a horse with her young son near Greeley a century ago, fought off a migration of rattlesnakes, decapitated them with a “No trespassing sign,” and made a flapper dress from their skins — all long before Lady Gaga’s infamous meat dress.

Since it began, the summit has introduced 57 new works, more than half of which that went on to full Theatre Company productions and, sometimes, critical acclaim. The intensive two-week workshop experience is instructive for the playwrights and allows audiences to peer into the new play development process.

Among the works rising to the challenge in past  years: Lauren Gunderson’s “The Book of Will;” Lauren Yee’s “The Great Leap;” Tanya Saracho’s “FADE;” Matthew Lopez’s “The Legend of Georgia McBride;” Samuel D. Hunter’s “The Whale;” Theresa Rebeck’s “The Nest;” Karen Zacarias’ “Just Like Us;” and Dick Scanlan’s reimagined “The Unsinkable Molly Brown.”

As Coleman likes to say, “every play we experience was new at some point.”

Some tickets for the Colorado New Play Summit still are available from the DCPA, including packages that allow you to tack on tickets to “Anna Karenina” on Thursday or Sunday.

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Why Denver Zoo’s new CEO thinks the zoo of the future will likely have fewer animals

Bert Vescolani took over as Denver Zoo’s new CEO late last summer, but he says it’s a position he’s been working toward for decades.

As a kid in Michigan, his family would take winter breaks from laboring in his father’s sporting goods shops to go skiing in Colorado, and, as an adult teaching high school science, he says he would spend his summers hiking and mountain biking around the West. As an executive at Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium and then later as the leader of the John Ball Zoo in Michigan, he said he was wowed by the innovation of Denver Zoo’s Predator Ridge exhibit. And as the CEO of the St. Louis Science Center, he said he was impressed with Denver Zoo’s collaborative staff.

“They just always seemed to be a team, and that’s what resonates with me,” he said. “I want to be part of a culture that works together and finds ways of doing things that make a difference.”

But he takes over the zoo at a critical point in its long history.

Many of its exhibits are aging and in need of modernization — part of the reason the zoo sent away its popular polar bears to different zoos with no timeline for a return. Many of its animals are growing older, as well. Two giraffes at the zoo, including one that was the oldest in North America, have died in the past six months.

More people are visiting the zoo than ever, but funding to address some of the problems is tight, after the zoo asked for $70 million from a general obligation bond package passed by Denver voters but received only $20 million. That’s causing the zoo to rethink how it implements its master plan.

So where does the zoo go from here? Vescolani said the zoo will have to become “probably more focused in our collection,” but he talked about a lot more than that during a recent interview with The Colorado Sun.

The following Q&A has been condensed and edited for clarity.


“This is what I really love”

The Colorado Sun: What brought you to Denver after seven years of running a nature and science museum?

Bert Vescolani: There’s always been this kind of getting back to this industry. I always loved it. I missed it. There was someone who said to me, a colleague of mine, who said, “Everytime you talk about your zoo experience and your aquarium experience, that’s when your face really lights up, that’s when you get really excited.” And I went, “You know, why am I fighting this? This is what I really love.”

CS: You started your career in zoos and aquariums as a volunteer then worked your way up. What was the No. 1 lesson you learned when you stepped from an executive role to the executive role?

BV: I think the hardest thing is moving out of programmatic management to not owning programs anymore. And, when I say owning them, they’re your babies. When you develop an education program or we had this whole diver program we established around safety and training programs for our sharks, those are your babies. You hatched (the programs) as a team and you worked really hard at that.

So giving them up was tough, and the more senior you got, the more responsibilities you got, the less you could do that.

CS: Did you say … training sharks?

BV: Yeah. In the animal care field, the optimal opportunity to take the best care of those animals almost always is around training. And if you can find an animal that is food-motivated — like sharks — you can train them. Or at least we believed we could, and we had success with it.

So we developed a shark training program. It was target training. You used a stick with a ball on the end. The shark would come up and put his nose on it; you’d feed him. After a bunch of times, it worked out so that we could get a really good look at that animal so we wouldn’t have to get in the water with them all the time.

CS: You’ve talked about the admiration you’ve had for Denver Zoo throughout your career. What’s made the zoo stand out nationally, in your view?

BV: Predator Ridge was the first big innovation. … It was one of the first — there may have been one or two others that were pushing the edge on this — but it really was the first place in time where they had taken a multi-species approach to different yards. Habitats that were changeable that you could move different animals in and out throughout the day — which is a little bit more like it would happen in nature. The ability to move them around, with the scents and all the other things that come with having multiple animals in those spaces, that was pretty innovative.

The way they built the movement of the animals behind the scenes for safety and training and for aspects of care was also pretty unique. It was complicated, but it worked. And it still works.

Veterinarians at Denver Zoo perform an exam on a tiger on March 7, 2013. (Courtesy of Denver Zoo)

The zoo’s place in a modern Colorado

CS: This gets to a pretty big challenge for zoos, the potential conflict between caring for animals and providing viewing experiences for visitors. What do you see as the best, highest purpose of the Denver Zoo?

BV: For sure, education is at its heart. That is the core of all zoos and aquariums across the country. No matter what they do in their other things, that’s what we’re all about. And we’re all about that because of some ends, right? And some of those ends are — wildlife needs us. There’s no doubt about it that we are in a time where animal life, plant life, habitats, ecosystems are all under pretty major threats. And some of that, we can identify and work with.

And zoos and aquariums are involved in conservation and try to help create awareness and buzz, if you will, around issues that are out there. And some of that is about helping people find the right behaviors and things they can do in their own life. And we’ve stopped a little bit short of that here, but you will start to see more of that.

CS: What’s an example?

BV: It’s interesting, when I first got here, I was living in a hotel room. And I’d turn on the news, and I’d see all these reports about bears. Bears are in someone’s backyard; bears are in someone’s garage. They broke into someone’s car; they’re in someone’s restaurant.

So, as people have gone further out and bears’ habitat is being encroached on, how do we help people cope with that? How do we help the bears stay where bears are supposed to be and people stay where people are supposed to be? You know, be conscious of these are big, aggressive animals and they can do harm, but their intention — they’re looking for food is what they’re doing. And so how do we better prepare people for that?

So as we think about the future, what’s our role? How can we help people connect with nature in a different way? We utilize this environment because you can see them close. And some of the animals we have, people will never see in the wild, either because they’ll never go to those places or because they’ll be gone before they get there.

Cranbeary, one of Denver Zoo’s former polar bears, is photographed in her exhibit on July 27, 2016. She was moved to a zoo in Alaska in October 2018. (Courtesy of Denver Zoo)

“Exhibit changes need to happen”

CS: As you’re trying to implement this vision, how do you deal with the zoo’s limitations — its age and its size?

BV:  It’s a 123-year-old facility. With an aging infrastructure that we have, it’s looking at the magnitude of change you can make, how much disruption you can manage and — money, right? Twenty-five-ish percent of our revenues come from city, county support. The rest of that, we earn and raise. So, in a $40 million to $42 million budget, that’s a lot of money.

…We’ve got to figure out how to do that in the best possible way we can — managing our resources, managing expectations and opportunities. So, exhibit changes need to happen. They’re just not cheap to build.

CS: When you’re changing exhibits, what will they look like? Are they bigger? More naturalistic?

BV: Not everything needs bigger space, but where they do, yes. Naturalistic is definitely much more appealing to the guest. It doesn’t always translate to the animal. It might surprise you. Sometimes they’re much better in an environment that’s a little safer for them, which might not have dead trees and big rocks and so on and so forth.

And you say, “Well, in nature they would have that, why not here?” They may be geriatric animals that, in the wild, would not be alive. So we’ve got to develop habitats and exhibits that match the animal needs and public needs, but animal needs first.

…Safety, security and their well-being are the three bigs. And then after that, it becomes a guest experience perspective. If we can’t exhibit them well to the guest, we probably shouldn’t have them.

CS: Can you make these changes while keeping the same number of species? How many animals does the zoo of the future have?

BV: Probably in pure numbers, probably less. And probably more focused in our collection. The animals in our care, we want to make sure we’re being really thoughtful about it. And that master plan expressed that. That was the focus of the master plan.

…I would love for people to have that experience where they see the awe of seeing a lion and they say, “How are lions doing in the wild? How can we make a difference?” And we help them navigate that.

An artist’s rendering of what Denver Zoo’s new animal hospital will look like. Construction began on the facility in February 2019, and it is scheduled to be completed in 2020. (Courtesy of Denver Zoo)

Aging animals, limited money

CS: If there’s going to be fewer species here, how do you decide what stays and what doesn’t?

BV: I think that’s a process. We are constantly thinking about, as we’re making exhibit changes and modifications, it’s not as simple as saying, you’ve got an elderly animal and ultimately when that animal fulfills its life here, we may not replace him, that group of animals. That’s how we make most of our decisions around that. We let them live their life where it makes sense.

Sometimes we get recommendations for breeding purposes. Most animals in zoological settings were born in zoos, and they’ve been multi-generational zoo-born animals. So the population genetics is managed at a national and international level.

CS: You mentioned the zoo’s master plan. The money from the general obligation bond wasn’t as much as you were hoping for. So will the plan need to be rewritten?

BV: Rewritten is not what I would want to do. There’s so much good work that went into that. I think it’s a scale thing. Let me put it this way: The first project on that master plan was the hospital. The hospital will be amazing. It will be truly a state-of-the-art focused space that will allow us to do the work we already do really well but will give us the best tools possible.

After that, we’re doing the grizzly bear exhibit. And that will be that story — how do you live with grizzly bears in the wild and in your own backyard.

CS: This is in the former polar bear space?

BV: Right. … The spirit of (the master plan) is still very much where we’re going. Many of the big pieces of that master plan, we’ll do. It’s just scale. I’m definitely committed to polar bears. I want to bring polar bears back. I think seals and sea lions — sea lions make a lot of sense for us in the future. It’s a really important story for us to tell, from the meltwater all the way to the ocean and the challenges that oceanic wildlife are dealing with right now.

CS: Any desire to expand the zoo’s overall footprint?

BV: Well … not now. Not really. It’s really this: We’re in a park; there’s nowhere else for us to go here. This is a community park, we have neighbors that are the Nature and Science Museum. It’s a public space. It’s well used. The golf course is across the street. This is good.

I think if we had to think about the future, it’s working collaboratively with other zoos in other places to think about how we work together differently. And that might expand the footprint of any of the three of us accredited zoos in the area — the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, Pueblo and us. But that’s way down the road.

A Lake Titicaca frog is seen in its enclosure at Denver Zoo in March 2016. The zoo has a long-running conservation project in Peru to preserve the frog. (Courtesy of Denver Zoo)

The beauty of ugly creatures

CS: When looking at the species that are part of the master plan, how much do economic considerations come into play and the visitor draw? Sea lions can do performances but seals generally don’t.

BV: So consideration for optimal care is always first. Habitat, animal wellness, all those things are generally first and foremost. The second consideration is what are the things around those animals that may be cost-prohibitive. So maybe they have a special diet and that special diet has to be flown in from some special place. And that becomes a question mark. What happens if you can’t get that diet or it becomes cost-prohibitive?

The public appeal is definitely part of it. There are some animals that may have no public appeal that we have on exhibit, and we’re going to keep them on exhibit because we think there is a really important conservation story.

CS: What’s an example?

BV: Lake Titicaca frogs. Have you ever seen a Lake Titicaca frog?

CS: Probably here?

BV: To some, they are a not overly attractive frog. But their story is so important. They live in a lake that is — we’ve got a project in Peru — and that lake has gone through the worst it can go through. And will it ever come back? What are some of the important species and indicator species for us to have? And frogs are this really kind of interesting intermediary, right? They eat the insects and they provide food, and they’re just kind of one of those, in the food chain, a pretty important animal.

We’re committed to doing that for as long as we need to from a standpoint of replacing those into the wild or helping people understand how to raise them. But no one is standing in line to go see the Lake Titicaca frog.

So it’s a blend. There are animals that are very charismatic that people get drawn to. And those are opportunities to help people see those not-so-charismatic animals that people aren’t so drawn to but are still an important part of that balance of nature. … So, yes, we’re committed to those not-so-attractive animals that we think are important stories to tell.

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Here is why Colorado didn’t convene a grand jury to investigate priest abuse as Pennsylvania did

With the announcement Tuesday that the Catholic church in Colorado will voluntarily participate in an independent investigation into sexual abuse by its priests comes a big question: Why didn’t the state convene a grand jury to investigate, as Pennsylvania did?

The answer has to do with the limited powers Colorado’s attorney general has to look into criminal offenses.

After a Pennsylvania grand jury released its report alleging hundreds of cases of child sex abuse had been covered up by the church, survivors of sexual abuse as children petitioned in August for an accounting of misconduct here, asking then-Attorney General Cynthia Coffman to convene a grand jury. And the possibility was explored.

MORE: Colorado’s Catholic churches will open records to independent investigator in effort to account for alleged sex abuse

But a statewide grand jury can be convened only in “certain, fairly limited circumstances that were not met in this instance,” Coffman told reporters Tuesday at the news conference announcing the independent investigation.

“Typical cases that go to the statewide grand jury are drug trafficking organizations, auto theft rings, financial fraud that occurs in multiple jurisdictions — places where there is evidence across judicial districts, where it makes sense for there to be a central investigation and prosecution,” Coffman said.

There are exceptions, however.

For example, the governor can ask the state’s attorney general to be a special prosecutor, as Gov. Bill Owens did in 2004. He requested that then-Attorney General Ken Salazar investigate a University of Colorado football recruiting scandal that included allegations that players had sexually assaulted women.

“We in the AG’s office do not have authority like they do in Pennsylvania to conduct such a grand jury. But we have a set of dioceses here who came to the table, engaged in conversation to develop appropriate solutions that are collaborative, committed to transparency and put victims first,” Attorney General Phil Weiser said in announcing the investigation.

Weiser and church officials said any criminal cases that are uncovered by former U.S. Attorney Bob Troyer, the independent investigator, would be forwarded to district attorneys who would prosecute if appropriate.

Troyer’s investigation aims to produce a public report naming any credibly accused priest and examining how the church responded to and prevented cases of abuse.

Without a grand jury, however, the state lacks legal power to demand information or compel witnesses to testify.

From left: Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser and Archbishop of Denver Samuel J. Aquila speak to reporters at the Colorado Attorney General’s Office on Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

However, Weiser said he’s confident the church won’t hold back information.

“Any lack of cooperation will be cited and called out in the report, thereby providing what I believe is a very powerful check and force of accountability,” he said.

Weiser was asked whether he think he needs — or wishes he had — the power of a grand jury.

“We have a process that we’ve now come to,” he said. “I want to see us implement this process, and at the end we can evaluate how it worked and what, if any, lessons should be learned.”

Colorado is among a growing slate of states where attorneys general are now investigating or independent investigations were launched following the Pennsylvania grand jury report’s release in August, including New Jersey, New York, Michigan, Vermont and Nebraska, among others.

Coffman called Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro and prosecutors in other states to learn about best practices before exploring how to investigate the Catholic church in Colorado. USA Today reports Shapiro says he was contacted by up to 45 states seeking assistance in their own investigations of the church.

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Arizona will miss deadline for Colorado River drought plan that impacts water for millions, officials say

By Jonathan J. Cooper, The Associated Press

PHOENIX — Arizona won’t have all the pieces of a Colorado River drought plan finished by the federal government’s deadline to finalize protections for water used by millions across the U.S. West, state water officials said Tuesday.

It’s the latest hurdle threatening the plan between seven states to take less water from the drought-starved Colorado River, which supplies 40 million people and 5.5 million acres of farmland. Missing the March 4 deadline could allow the federal government to step in and decide the rules.

About half of the 15 agreements that Arizona needs to secure among water users will be ready by March 4, said Ted Cooke, director of the Central Arizona Project, which brings Colorado River water to the sprawling cities and farm fields around Phoenix and Tucson.

“That’s an artificial deadline, and these are very complex agreements and very complex negotiations, and we will take the time that we need to do them properly,” Cooke told reporters Tuesday following a meeting of water users working on the drought plan.

He said he hopes to finalize all the agreements within 60 days.

MORE: Amid drought, a changing climate and population growth, can Colorado’s unique water law system survive?

Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Nevada have joined drought contingency plans for the Colorado River, while Arizona and California are still working on plans.

Arizona lawmakers have approved the drought plan, but U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Director Brenda Burman has said the state also must finalize the complex agreements needed to implement it.

If that’s not done by March 4, Burman says she will ask governors what should happen next — starting a process that could result in federally mandated cuts instead of the voluntary plans negotiated by the states. That’s particularly worrisome in Arizona, which has the lowest-priority water rights on the Colorado River.

Cooke repeatedly declined to speculate on what would happen if the state doesn’t finish its work by the deadline. But he said Arizona would probably be done before the federal government could get very far down an alternative path.

Also Tuesday, Arizona House Speaker Rusty Bowers put a measure on hold that angered a key player in several agreements the state is trying to finalize. The Gila River Indian Community has said it will back out of the drought plan without assurances the legislation will die, and it wasn’t clear if Bowers’ move would be sufficient.

The measure would alter the state’s five-year “use it or lose it” water rights law, which the tribe says would undermine its rights to water from its namesake river, secured in 2004 following decades of litigation.

“The community cannot be singled out for legislative attack by the most powerful members of the Arizona House of Representatives and still view itself as a genuine partner in solving the state’s water crisis,” Gila River Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis said. “We view this as slap in the face of the community.”

The headwaters of the Colorado River in Grand County. (Nina Riggio, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Bowers put off his measure following a public hearing in a House committee, where several farmers from eastern Arizona told lawmakers that they were concerned about preserving their income and way of life.

“This not only affects us, but it affects our children and grandchildren who have farming in their blood and would love to continue our family farming operation,” Lois Reynolds said.

Bowers said he wants to talk to lawyers and see if there’s another way to allow farmers to fallow their fields for more than five years without surrendering their water rights.

Don Pongrace, a lawyer for the Gila River Indian Community, said it wasn’t clear if the measure was dead so that the tribal council could schedule a vote on joining the drought plan.

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Colorado’s Catholic churches will open records to independent investigator in effort to account for alleged sex abuse

The three Catholic dioceses of Colorado will open their records to an independent investigator in an effort to provide a full accounting of sexual abuse of children by priests through the decades, part of a national reckoning for the church after an explosive grand jury report last year in Pennsylvania.

The investigator will compile a list of priests with substantiated allegations of abuse, including where the clergy were assigned and the years when the offenses were alleged to have occurred, under the initiative announced Tuesday by the church and the Colorado Attorney General’s Office. That list will then be made public. The initiative also will include a full review of the church’s policies and procedures in responding to and preventing abuse.

“My colleagues around the country have responded to the Pennsylvania grand jury report in a variety of ways,” Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser, a Democrat, said in a written statement. “Today, we are announcing a Colorado solution that is collaborative, enhances transparency and provides victims access to support services and compensation. I want to thank the bishops for working with my office to achieve these positive steps.”

Colorado’s former U.S. attorney, Bob Troyer, will lead the independent investigation. Half of his fees will be paid by private anonymous donors known to state officials; the other half will come from the dioceses in Denver, Pueblo and Colorado Springs.

Discussions about the voluntary agreement date back to August under former Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman, a Republican, following the release of the Pennsylvania grand jury report, which alleged sexual abuse by hundreds of priests in that state. That report was two years in the making.

That investigation, which alleged a widespread coverup dating back decades, prompted a number of victims to reach out to the Colorado Attorney General’s Office about their own experiences. In addition, the Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests asked for an investigation in Colorado and other states.

In turn, state authorities began examining how to do their own full accounting of what might have happened at churches in Colorado.

As the attorney general’s office was exploring how to investigate, church officials reached out. That prompted conversations about how the two sides could move forward outside of the legal system, Coffman told The Colorado Sun.

The plan is a hybrid of what has been done in other states. It doesn’t fully involve law enforcement — no subpoenas or a grand jury investigation — and it doesn’t allow the church to investigate itself. Troyer’s report, which will be public, is expected this fall.

The idea isn’t to yield prosecutions, per se. The hope is that the process is a definitive way to reveal the extent of any abuse that might have occurred, and to provide solace to victims who have been voiceless, potentially for decades. If criminal abuse is uncovered, authorities could move forward to prosecution.

“The damage inflicted upon young people and their families by sexual abuse, especially when it’s committed by a trusted person like a priest, is profound,” Archbishop Samuel Aquila said in a written statement. “While this process will certainly include painful moments and cannot ever fully restore what was lost, we pray that it will at least begin the healing process. We also acknowledge that the bright light of transparency needs to shine on the church’s history related to the sexual abuse of minors. With humility and repentance, we hope the programs announced today offer a path to healing for survivors and their families.”

Details of the agreement

Archbishop of Denver Samuel J. Aquila signing official documents during a church ceremony on Aug. 10, 2018. Colorado’s three Catholic dioceses on Tuesday announced they will open records to a special investigator for a full accounting of sexual abuse of children by priests. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The attorney general’s office is stressing that the independent review is not a criminal investigation and that they are not aware of any previous, unreported criminal conduct.

Still, if criminal conduct is uncovered, the agreement is that the allegations will be forwarded to law enforcement and be included in the public report. There is no statute of limitations in Colorado for sexual abuse of a child.

Weiser’s office has agreed to make resources available to district attorneys in Colorado as needed.

“It is my sincere hope that the independent review we announce today validates survivors of sexual abuse by priests and empowers them in their ongoing recovery,” Coffman said in a written statement. “All survivors deserve to be believed and supported on their road to healing. I am encouraged that the Catholic Dioceses of Colorado have voluntarily agreed to this review by an outside party that, hopefully, allows victims an opportunity to have some healing and helps the church and its faithful move forward from a place of truth and vigilance.”

In addition to the independent investigation into potential cases of abuse, the three Colorado dioceses have agreed to fund a reparations program that will exist independent of the church. Two outside experts — Kenneth Feinberg and Camille Biros, who have handled victim compensation for other church abuse cases around the country and high-profile tragedies including the Aurora theater shooting — will administer the program.

Former Republican U.S. Sen. Hank Brown, of Colorado, will lead a committee overseeing the compensation program. Additionally, potential victims will have access to support services.

The framework for the Colorado agreement follows what’s been happening for months in other states across the nation.

Similar actions were recently announced in California and New Jersey, where five Catholic dioceses released the names last week of church leaders who had been “credibly accused” of sexually assaulting children. The list had 188 names, including more than 100 church leaders who are dead, according to NJ.com.

The move came after pressure from constituents, similar to pressure that has intensified in Colorado. The Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, has helped Colorado citizens and victims in other states push attorneys general to take action.

“After reading reports of the Pennsylvania grand jury, I can no longer trust that my children are safe in the state of Colorado,” begins a suggested letter posted on SNAP’s website, imploring the state to open an independent investigation of sexual abuse of children by priests. “I am both outraged and disturbed by what they found.”

Colorado’s history with clergy and sexual abuse

As in the rest of the country, stories of sexual abuse by priests have spilled out in Colorado in recent years, particularly about abuse that happened decades earlier.

In 2008, the Archdiocese of Denver settled 18 cases of sexual abuse by priests for $5.5 million. The cases involved abuse of young people from 1954 to 1981, and the three priests involved in the cases had already died when the settlement was announced.

Charles Chaput, Denver’s then-archbishop, called the matter “hugely mortifying” to the church, according to a 2008 Denver Post article.

Just two months ago, the Jesuits U.S. Central and Southern Province released a list of priests found to have credible allegations of sexual abuse against them. While none of the priests still was serving in public ministry, and seven were dead, the list included 13 priests who had once worked in Colorado.

Eight of the priests worked at Regis High School, and two of those men were tied to allegations involving former students at the high school, according to a letter sent at the time by Regis to its school community.

And last November, a man who had studied at Denver’s St. John Vianney Theological Seminary went public with allegations of abuse he says occurred in the early 2000s. Stephen Szutenbach was prompted to report his sexual abuse to the Philadelphia Inquirer after he heard a Denver archdiocese leader’s interview on Colorado Public Radio, according to a Denver Post story.

Szutenbach was upset that Denver’s vicar general, Father Randy Dollins, did not mention in the radio interview that the archdiocese had received a new report of sexual abuse as recently as 2007, the year Szutenbach said he reported his abuse.

Szutenbach said he was repeatedly subject to unwanted sexual contact from the Rev. Kent Drotar, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer article. Drotar was sent to counseling and assigned to another parish after Szutenbach reported the abuse the archdiocese.

In another tie to Colorado, one of the priests implicated in the Pennsylvania grand jury report served in Colorado Springs in the 1980s.

The Colorado church’s ongoing response

Tuesday’s announcement of an independent investigation comes after work by the Archdiocese of Denver in response to the Pennsylvania report.

The Denver Archdiocese last fall created a website from which Aquila pledged to be “transparent about our handling prevention and response policies in regards to the sexual abuse of minors and misconduct.” The site includes a section titled #trackrecord detailing work the archdiocese has done to prevent sexual abuse.

“The Archdiocese of Denver can never fully make right the sins of the past, but we are committed to always being a part of the healing process,” Aquila wrote in introducing the website. “Also, be assured that I support the involvement of the laity in an independent investigation into the various facets of the wider crisis within the church.”

The archdiocese held Masses last year “for all the sin committed by members of our church.” However, it also contended that abuse has decreased significantly since the 1970s in Colorado and across the rest of the nation, something it said was lost in the Pennsylvania grand jury report.

“What we haven’t done well is help the public, our parishioners, or even the media to understand the facts about our track record here in Denver or across the church in the U.S.,” the site says.

Weiser and church officials are expected to release more details about the agreement at a news conference on Tuesday morning.

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Redstone Castle spent years in financial distress. The accountants who own it now are “a dream come true”

REDSTONE — For years, April and Steve Carver would pass this riverside hamlet and admire the iconic Redstone Castle from afar. They had spent decades restoring the historic shine to the Hotel Denver in Glenwood Springs, but the castle seemed beyond their financial grasp.

“Then we watched it sell for $6 million and said nope, not in our reach,” Steve said. “Then we watched it sell for $4 million and said nope, still not there. And then we got a card in the mail that they were having an auction with a minimum bid of $2 million.”

The couple — certified public accountants by trade and historians by passion — won the Redstone Castle at that October 2016 auction, spending a little more than $2 million for the stately manor, which was built by a coal baron between 1899 and 1902.

Redstone Castle in Pitkin County, Colorado, has undergone a massive renovation by April and Steve Carver, who also overhauled the historic Hotel Denver in Glenwood Springs. (Provided by Redstone Castle)

It was a bargain, but the Carvers’ spendy journey was only beginning.

Tapping their 27 years of expertise amassed overhauling the Hotel Denver, the Carvers launched a sweeping renovation of Redstone Castle, spending well more than their purchase price to restore one of Colorado’s historic jewels.

Ask anyone who has dug into a century-old home, and a vast majority will express moments of regret. It’s one of the stages of a lengthy restoration. But it was worse for the Carvers, who tackled a property that had as many as 10 previous owners who made occasional upgrades. And because the federal government imposed conservation easements for part of the property. And because local land-use code forbade events that could help reimburse the investment in renovations.

“Yes, we’d do it again, but …”

Still, the Carvers have few regrets about reviving the castle. “Yes, we’d do it again, but there were times when I would have said no,” April said.

The Redstone Castle is one of Colorado’s most storied buildings. Coal-mining magnate John Osgood spent more than $2 million to build the 42-room, Tudor-style manor on 150 acres as a winter retreat. Osgood spent lavishly on the remote home, which overlooked a village he built to shelter his coal miners.

There’s silk wallpaper in the French-themed music room; green-dyed Spanish leather on the walls of the library, which was built to look like the inside of a train car; a Honduran, hand-rubbed mahogany table and Russian red-velvet on the walls in the dining room; and a diamond-dust mirror hanging above a fireplace.

Imported Italian marble — not the then-plebian Colorado Yule marble, oh, no, from the quarry down the road that Osgood also owned — surrounds each of the 14 fireplaces. Domed ceilings are lined with aluminum, which was more valuable than gold in 1900.

Redstone Castle in Pitkin County, Colorado, has numerous historic preservation easements that cover the building, its grounds and the main floor rooms, including the dining room, which has Russian red velvet on its walls and gold leaf on its ceiling. (Nina Riggio, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Every room is adorned with Tiffany & Co. light fixtures, sconces and chandeliers.

A hydropower plant on the Crystal River generated electricity for the castle at a time when not even New York City was wired for power. Osgood also built a reservoir, a kennel for his hunting dogs and a massive carriage house for horses, and he created a preserve for elk, deer and bighorn sheep.

The castle is a monument to the Gilded Age and, in its heyday, hosted such luminaries as John D. Rockefeller and Teddy Roosevelt. More-contemporary superstars flocked in as well, including Jimmy Buffett, who married at the castle in 1977 as the Eagles played in the yard.

The castle was owned by Ken Johnson, the owner of the Grand Junction Sentinel newspaper in the 1980s and ’90s. Johnson invested heavily in the property, converting it to a 16-room bed-and-breakfast with a commercial kitchen. Johnson kept the castle’s treasures intact and sold the property in the 1990s — several times, in fact, regaining ownership as buyers stumbled.

When the Carvers took over, they shouldered a burden that kept the castle’s sale price so low. (The castle is in Pitkin County, where $2 million can fetch a 1980 condo at Snowmass Village or shared ownership of a condo in Aspen.)

The property, thanks to the Redstone Historical Society, is one of the few in the country to have federal historic-conservation easements that span not just the exterior and acreage, but also the interior of the mansion.

Those easements are a jewel in the historical society’s crown. In 2003, the Internal Revenue Service seized the castle as it investigated a international Ponzi scheme run by Norman Schmidt, a Denver man who eventually was sentenced to 330 years in prison. As the agency and the Securities Exchange Commission sought to reimburse about 1,000 investors bilked out of around $50 million on the promise of 400 percent returns, the castle was set for auction. The historical society joined state and federal historical-conservation groups in persuading the IRS to impose easements to protect not just the castle’s exterior and 23 acres around it, but also many of the castle’s main rooms on the first floor.

Ralli Dimitrius was the high bidder in the 2005 auction, paying the IRS $4 million. Although the California businessman needed federal approval for just about any change to the property and for the sale of any furnishing, Dimitrius ran the castle as a bed-and-breakfast, investing very little. In 2015, his children put the castle on the market for $7.5 million.

Preservation easements did their job

Those conservation easements probably deterred a lot of buyers. And that was the intent.

“The Redstone Historical Society was able to convince the IRS that they had a responsibility to take the historic value of the property into consideration when they sold it in 2005,” said Darrell Munsell, a Redstone resident and former history professor who was president of the society at the time. “We knew that by putting a conservation easement on the property, that it would drive the price and the value of the property down. But we also saw something else. We saw the easement as discouraging some property owners who were not interested in historic preservation. The Carvers saw that as an advantage.”

Historic preservation easements protect the main-floor rooms, and some of the furnishings, at Redstone Castle in Pitkin County, Colorado. As owner April Carver worked on the overhaul of the property, she retained deer mounts and wicker furniture that appeared in circa 1900s photographs of the loggia. Left, the loggia, a sunlit hallway or enclosed porch, at Redstone Castle in a photograph dating to the early 1900s. Right, the same loggia in 2019. (Left: Historic photo Right: Nina Riggio, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Still, there was worry among Redstone’s historians and residents that the castle this time would sell to a deep-pocketed buyer who would occupy the property as a home, closing it to public access. For decades, the castle has been open for tours, offering visitors a chance to see, touch and feel history.

Since the Carvers opened the castle last fall, they have hosted hundreds of tours.

“Schoolchildren visiting the place get that historic feeling and appreciation of history that they can’t get from textbooks or other means. This is really a great service that the Carvers are providing,” Munsell said, calling the couple “the white-knight” buyers.

Debby Strom, also a member of the historical society, worked at the castle after it was seized by the IRS, and she managed the nearby Redstone Inn in the 1990s. Back then, when Johnson owned the castle, Redstone had about 30 businesses and six restaurants. Today, there are two restaurants and about six businesses in the sleepy village. With the castle restored and hosting guests, hope for an economic spark is growing in Redstone, Strom said.

Smelling of leather, cigar smoke and beers of years past, the billiards hall remains in beautiful condition in the basement of Redstone Castle. When April and Steve Carver bought the Pitkin County manse, they had a carpet expert some in and tell them to not move the original carpet in fear that it would fall apart from old age and use. (Nina Riggio, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“The Carvers are better than a dream come true,” she said. “If it were not for that grand building, Redstone would be a ghost town. We were so hoping for someone who could match Ken Johnson’s stewardship, but what we got was even better. I remember hearing from Ken’s attorney after he sold it the last time that Ken just didn’t have any more shirts to lose.”

The Carvers certainly appreciate the history of the castle, as evidenced by their painstaking restoration. When they took over, the place had three working bathrooms. They renovated 17 bathrooms in the 23,000-square-foot mansion to create 11 suites, 10 of which are available to guests. The Carvers applied for historic grants and secured both federal and state historic tax credits on rehabilitation costs as they touched every inch of the castle, including a repair to the water-damaged ceiling in the library that had to be completed with materials used in 1901.  

“Those credits are absolutely critical. Just huge,” Steve said. “I hope legislators realize how important those tax credits are in preserving historical gems like this.”

The Carvers also want to establish a model that can keep the castle vibrant.

The library, designed to replicate the feel of a train car, with many square windows overlooking the front grounds of Redstone Castle, includes a “bustle” couch, which has a deeper sitting surface to accommodate women’s fashion of the period. The ceiling is covered in aluminium leaf and hand-stenciled in a peacock motif. (Nina Riggio, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“Our goal is to make it self-sustaining so it doesn’t have to go through this process every 20, 30, 40 years,” April said.

The Carvers are exploring the castle’s role in the market, tinkering with seasonal overnight rates, which currently run about $300 in the winter. They are welcoming overnight guests, but they hope to rent the entire property for events such as weddings and anniversary celebrations.

The couple spent two years working with Pitkin County to allow larger gatherings, which required an amendment to the land-use code that allowed only a few big events a year. The Carvers attended at least a dozen public meetings with Crystal River Valley residents, county planners and commissioners, hammering out a plan that allows the two to host 60 events a year, 20 of which can include more than 100 guests.

“We spent a lot of time — a very expensive, arduous process — trying to figure out what exactly the county wanted, what we wanted and what the neighbors wanted,” Steve said.

“We asked for a lot, and they all gave us a lot,” April said. “Almost everyone up here wants what is best for the castle, and we had many supporters show up at every one of those meetings.”

The couple bought the Hotel Denver in 1991 and quickly launched a renovation of every room. They ripped out the carpets, formica and shiny brass, and restored the hotel’s historic splendor. That experience is what pushed them toward the Redstone Castle.

“I watched my wife take a pig’s ear and make it into a purse, you know. Take a look at the rooms at the Hotel Denver — she touched every room and turned them all into beautiful places, and we are the top boutique hotel in Glenwood. I just knew she would do something really nice, really special here,” Steve said during a tour of Redstone Castle. “And she did. It’s not outrageous and it respects the history. It’s authentic.”

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Colorado farmers can’t get their food to the table. One startup wants to lend hands.

Last summer was a bad one for Michael Moss. A June hailstorm laid waste to his Kilt Farm southwest of Longmont, setting him back $60,000 in peppers and early-season produce — an amount just shy of the vegetable farm’s entire yearly revenue.

But his problems didn’t end with the weather. After scrambling to start the season over, Moss couldn’t find enough people to harvest his green beans — and lost that crop, too.

“When the beans started to be ready for harvest, we didn’t have the labor to come in and get them out of the field,” he said.

“If you miss the window, then they become woody and they’re not worth eating.”

With Moss working around the clock to bring in his tomatoes and artichokes, another $4,500 of green beans were left in the field.

Moss isn’t the only Colorado farmer who can’t hire enough workers. Fierce political debate around migrant laborers, along with broader cultural shifts, has meant that farm labor in the United States is in ever-shorter supply, year after year.

For one Western Slope fruit grower, the shortage of workers last summer was so bad that he left 40,000 pounds of peaches to rot on the tree.

And fruit left to rot is not just a question of farmers’ already-precarious pocketbooks, but also climate change. The United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that a third of all food produced globally is wasted or lost somewhere in the supply chain, and that this accounts for 8 percent of the world’s carbon emissions.

Now, with the help of the World Wildlife Foundation and the Rocky Mountain Farmers’ Union, one startup, called UpRoot Colorado, is trying to fill the labor gap and bring nutrient-dense food to the hungry in the process.

Volunteers arrive at a glean at Chatfield Farms in Jefferson County in this 2018 file photo. (Provided by UpRoot)

Gleaning the leftovers

The idea for UpRoot came to David Laskarzewski, one of the organization’s founders, after he participated in a 2016 event in Denver called “Feeding the 5,000.”

Organized by the London-based nonprofit Feedback, “Feeding the 5,000” aimed to raise awareness of food waste by hiring chefs to make snacks with food that would have otherwise been thrown out, and then handing them out for free in downtown Denver.

For Laskarzewski, “Feeding the 5,000” was a window into surplus on Colorado farms. When the chefs came to its organizers and said they needed fresh produce to make curry, he and his team contacted area farmers, asking them if they had leftover vegetables that would otherwise go to waste.

They did. Over the course of 10 hours, Laskarzewski and a team of 20 volunteers harvested about 1,500 pounds of food from two Front Range farms. When the event had wrapped up, the experience stayed with him.

“We thought about how much food we got from the farms, and also, walking away from those farms — it was October. We were like … that’s not going to be used? There’s a lot out there,” Laskarzewski said.

That winter, he and his business partners Ciara Low and Maggie Brown researched food surplus in Colorado. The next year, UpRoot was born. Funded in part by grants from the World Wildlife Fund, the organization takes a double-pronged approach to food that is left on farms in Colorado.

First are the gleaners. When a Colorado farmer has a crop they can’t afford to get out of the field, UpRoot provides a team of volunteers, called gleaners, to harvest it and donate it to a local food bank, such as Community Food Share and Food Bank of the Rockies on the Front Range, and LIFT-UP, which runs seven pantries on the Western Slope.

The second is called the Mobile Farm Workforce. For $16 per laborer per hour, it offers on-demand workers to any Colorado farmer without enough hands to get a crop off the field. Begun as a pilot in September, the program has harvested some 200,000 pounds of food across 10 farms in the state. Laskarzewski hopes to grow it into a statewide workers’ co-op by 2020.

Putting a number on food waste

Food loss has been a problem on U.S. farms for decades. But what Laskarzewski found as UpRoot was conceived is that quantitative research on it is still sparse and relatively new, which makes addressing the roots of the problem harder.

Lisa Johnson, a Ph.D. student at the University of North Carolina, is at the vanguard of studying agricultural surplus in the United States. In a recent paper, Johnson measured the amount of food left on the field across 68 North Carolina farms.

On average, Johnson found that about 42 percent of all food grown was lost. This isn’t an exact figure. In fact, losses varied from 10 to 80 percent, depending on the farm, she said.

But before Johnson’s work, there was almost no data on how much food is actually left on U.S. farms. Most institutions, including the USDA and the UN, just used a decades-old estimate from a plant pathologist that put the number closer to 20 percent.

This 42 percent is significant. Rotting vegetables, if they’re not properly composted, make methane as they decompose, a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

“If food waste were a country, it would be the third-largest emitter of greenhouse gasses in the world,” Laskarzewski said.

A harvest crew with the Tuxedo Corn Company of Olathe Colo., works to remove thousands of ears of its Olathe Sweet Sweet Corn crop from a field west of Olathe July 10, 2018. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

There are a lot of factors that contribute to nearly half of America’s produce never leaving the field, Laskarzewski and Johnson said. For one, Americans just don’t tend to buy ugly vegetables, which means that tons of misshapen carrots and wonky peppers go to waste every year without grocery stores or restaurants to take them.

But beyond aesthetic concerns are larger structural problems. The top reason for food getting left on the field is a farmer won’t be able to find a buyer for it, Johnson said. Big grocery chains will sign a contract for a certain amount of vegetables, but then break it if they find a better deal down the road.

Meanwhile farmers, who take on most of the financial risk of growing a crop, will plant extra food if they get a contract, to hedge their bets in case of hurricane or hail.

This often leads to institutions like the USDA blaming farmers for food that’s left on the farm, as opposed to looking more seriously at other factors.

“Recommendations are often [given] at the growing level, like ‘Growers just need to reduce overproduction — it’s their fault,’” Johnson said.

But, for a farmer like Moss, there’s not much choice but to overplant, Laskarzewski said. Even though many contracts come with a rider that allows the buyer to break the deal after the crop is planted, they still represent security in a difficult profession.

“Farming is economically not an easy vocation to make ends meet all the time,” Laskarzewski said.

“If someone comes to you as a farmer and says, I’ve got this $50,000 contract, you’re like: ‘Awesome. I’ll pay my bills, feed my family, have a good year.’”

Colorado needs farm labor

UpRoot can’t do much about contracts, or America’s demand for perfect vegetables. But once a contract is broken, or, even if a farmer is just growing a crop with plans to sell it at a market, the biggest obstacle to getting vegetables off the field is finding and paying for labor.

Moss and Erin Dreistadt and Natalie Condon, two other Boulder County farmers, say labor represents about 50 percent of their annual costs. As vegetable farmers, they mostly rely on human hands to harvest crops, not machinery. Usually, they can barely find enough.

“Every season we lose a few beds to weeds. We didn’t get there in time, and the weeds take over. The turnips can’t grow because the weeds are so big and they’re growing faster,” said Dreistadt, one of the owners of Aspen Moon Farm near Hygiene.

Dreistadt employs from four to 25 people over the course of a year, with the most during the peak harvest season. But even with a full crew, the farm falls behind.

“We don’t have enough people. We don’t have a buffer. So everybody’s working 65, 66, 67 hours a week, which is a lot for people,” she says.

Small farms across the Front Range see a lot of burnout, Dreistadt said, estimating a yearly turnover of more than half the staff.  Part of the reason labor is in such short supply is wages. Farm work pays about the same as flipping burgers, Dreistadt said, but is grueling.

“It’s really hard work in all kinds of weather. There’s tons of mosquitoes all the time. There’s spiders. There’s a lot of lifting. There’s a lot of bending over and stuff.”

Sweaty and demanding as the work is, few Colorado farmers are in a place to raise their vegetable prices and pay their laborers more.

“You can’t really raise your prices of vegetables to something that would reflect the labor that goes into it. If you raise your prices at the farmer’s market, people probably just won’t buy,” Dreistadt said.

A wheat field at Metrogro Farm near Deer Trail, photographed on Sept. 19, 2018. (John Ingold, The Colorado Sun)

As is, Dreistadt and Condon, the owner of Isabelle Farm in Lafayette, rely heavily on farm stores and Community-Supported Agriculture (CSAs) — outlets catering to customers who want local food and are willing to pay for it.

“You tell me, where else are vegetables coming from? They’re coming from places where people make $14 a day. Here we pay $16 an hour. In Mexico, they pay $10 to $14 a day. You don’t have to charge a lot for a tomato if you’re not paying your workers anything,” Condon said.

UpRoot’s gleaners are free. The food they harvest goes to food banks like Community Food Share, Harvest of Hope and Food Bank of the Rockies. In 2016 and 2017, the organization worked with about 20 farms across the state, gleaning between 10,000 and 16,000 pounds of fresh produce, Laskarzewski said.

Moss was among the farmers who used the gleaners — for cabbages in 2017, and for watermelons in 2018.

“If I see that there’s a lot of something that I’m not going to be able to get to, that’s when I call gleaners to come in and really get it out of the field for me,” he said.

Those watermelons and cabbages are a boon to Coloradans who don’t have access to adequate nutrition.

“I think [UpRoot] is filling a great need in terms of utilizing food surplus on farms,” Community Food Share spokeswoman say Julia McGee says.

McGee estimates that Community Food Share has taken some 10,000 pounds of produce from UpRoot since its inception. The food bank has its own gleaning program as well, which works in collaboration with UpRoot.

“It’s such a win-win,” she says. “We’re getting our people produce that’s normally very expensive to get. And we’re collaborating with local farmers.”

MORE: Read more environmental coverage from The Colorado Sun.

For Condon and Dreistadt, the more important part of the startup is the Mobile Farm Workforce — whose staff, in its pilot season, was 28 percent veterans. They cost more than her regular workforce, said Dreistadt, but she called them 10 times during the season.

Unlike other farm workers, they don’t require heavy paperwork — and it’s on-demand labor, billed per hour, which better reflects the changing realities of a farm’s needs.

“If you hire an employee, then you have this person. You’ve already committed to hours and they’ve arrived. You have to come up with other work for them to do. Farming is dependent on nature, which is this huge unknown,” she said.

Condon, Dreistadt and Moss describe UpRoot as a missing piece of the puzzle — a way to make it possible for workers and farmers to make ends meet.

Laskarzewski has broader ambitions. He sees the Mobile Farm Workforce as a path for farm workers across the state to organize. He’d like them to have greater ownership over their skills and their profession.

“The goal is to create a cooperative. A statewide worker-owned cooperative,” he said. “If it were year-round, potentially it could be a job that would pay livable wages.”

As for his gleaners — the hundred or so volunteers who harvest vegetables that would otherwise go to waste, he sees the work as an educational service to the community, as well as a way to supply nutrient-dense produce to food banks.

“The connection is having people realize that farms are a cornerstone of your community and your lives,” he said.

“If you create a healthy food system, it will take the burden off your health care system, because people will be healthy. If you can value food, if you can value and appreciate food … you won’t waste it.”

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Opinion: Colorado senators’ bipartisanship offers hope for saving America’s most important conservation program

Some of life’s most important lessons aren’t taught in a classroom but imparted around a campfire, hiking on a trail, rafting on a river or standing on top of a mountain.

Those of us in the outdoor industry have a special relationship to the land — a reverence really — because it’s not only the source of our livelihood, but our first love and inspiration.

That’s why we were alarmed when America’s most important conservation program, the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), expired last September.   

Across the country, the mountains, lakes, forests and streams that surround us aren’t just scenery, they are a part of our identity and help to define who we are.

Steve Rendle

For more than 50 years, LWCF has provided Americans with the assurance that our nation’s outdoor treasures will be protected and passed on to the next generation. It is also our nation’s best and most valuable tool to ensure we all have access to public lands.

LWCF has endured for half a century with bipartisan support: reinvesting the royalties from offshore oil and gas development to permanently conserve the places where we play. Most impressive is the fact that the program doesn’t use a dime of taxpayer money as it is funded entirely from royalty payments.    

While the uncertainty about LWCF has been troubling, there is growing optimism about LWCF’s future thanks in large part to Colorado’s senators.

READ: Colorado Sun opinion columnists.

Sen. Michael Bennet and Sen. Cory Gardner have been at the forefront of preserving this vital program and working to ensure the permanent and full funding promised for LWCF as it was intended.

Their years-long work resulted in the recent Senate passage of a critical public lands package that included a permanent reauthorization of LWCF and several measures important to Colorado’s parks, trails and lands.  

We are now on the verge of preserving the LWCF for generations to come as the lands package awaits a vote in the House of Representatives.

At VF Corporation, we are committed to strengthening our public lands and we support the swift passage of the permanent reauthorization of LWCF.

And we appreciate the longtime bipartisan commitment to this program and other vital outdoor conservation programs from Colorado’s congressional delegation.

Steve Rendle is the Chairman, President and CEO of VF Corporation, one of the world’s largest apparel, footwear and accessories companies.

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What really led A-Basin to quit the Epic Pass cash cow? “Parking is our pinch point.”

The deluge of weekend Epic Pass skiers has forced Arapahoe Basin to abandon its decade-long partnership with Vail Resorts.

“We are pretty darn full on weekends and we don’t need any more people on weekends. If anything, we could probably whittle those numbers down a little bit,” Arapahoe Basin’s longtime leader Alan Henceroth said Monday, the day the resort announced it had pulled the plug on the Epic Pass partnership for the 2019-20 ski season. “Our parking is our pinch point.”

Arapahoe Basin, a local’s favorite with a rowdy selection of daunting steeps and a rootsy vibe, has thrived for 10 years under a deal with Vail Resorts that included the 1,428-acre ski area on the industry-dominating Epic Pass. Last fall the company sold more than 825,000 of those passes, offering skiing at 65 different locations.

Vail Resorts once owned Arapahoe Basin for a hot minute. But the U.S. Department of Justice in 1997 forced Vail Resorts to sell the ski area near the summit of Loveland Pass, citing antitrust issues after Vail acquired Ralston Resorts’ Summit County ski areas: Breckenridge, Keystone and A-Basin.

Vail’s Summit County ski areas have partnered with Arapahoe Basin on various shared passes since 1998.

Arapahoe Basin, which is owned by Canada’s Dundee Resort Development, was Vail Resorts’ first partner resort on the Epic Pass, which now includes access to privately owned, independent resorts such as Telluride, Sun Valley and Snowbasin.  

The partnership worked well for Arapahoe Basin, which has spent $40 million in upgrades and expansions in the last 15 years, including the 468-acre push into the Beavers and Steep Gullies that debuted this season.

The year before Vail Resorts unveiled the game-changing Epic Pass in 2008, Arapahoe Basin paid the U.S. Treasury $243,000 in revenue-based rent for use of the White River National Forest’s public lands. In 2016 — the last time the Forest Service broke out individual resort lease payments — Arapahoe Basin paid more than $484,000.

That’s a nearly 100 percent increase in rent in the first eight years under the Epic Pass. (Ski areas pay rent to their federal landlords based on gross revenues. After sharing individual resort payment information for more than a decade, the U.S. Forest Service last year said it would no longer disclose those payments, citing resort operators’ “trade secrets.”)

The doubling of revenue at Arapahoe Basin between 2007 and 2016 marks the largest increase of any resort in Colorado during that period.

“We are still on the same trajectory,” Henceroth said.

After years of flourishing, Henceroth said it’s time for Arapahoe Basin to leave the Epic Pass, largely due to the parking pressures that accompanied its growth. It’s a roiling world for independent resorts these days, as ski areas across North America divide into two camps, either aligning with the Epic Pass or Alterra Mountain Co.’s inaugural Ikon Pass.

The popularity of those passes — the two companies easily sold more than 1.1 million of the passes across the country last season — is fueling record traffic at ski areas, especially on the weekends.

Arapahoe Basin has 1,950 parking spots. It’s not enough. Even though there are rarely lift lines, the number of cars flooding the resort on busy days has caused safety issues, with cars spilling from parking lots onto the precarious mountain highway near the resort. A new parking plan has worked to ease the car crowding by encouraging carpooling this season, but the Colorado State Patrol last weekend began cracking down on cars illegally parked on U.S. 6.

The resort is working to lure skiers beyond weekends. Last year Arapahoe Basin — a little more than an hour’s drive from Denver — started selling a $299 weekday pass that has been received “extremely well,” Henceroth said. “We are going to keep pushing more and more of our visitors to weekdays.”

The proliferation of passes has clogged the high country in recent years, with weekend traffic jams and parking issues flaring up at nearly every resort on the Interstate 70 corridor.

Epic Pass crowds overwhelmed Boulder County’s Eldora ski area in 2013-14 and the resort ended its pass partnership after only one year. The resort now is part of the Ikon Pass and parking remains an issue, with drive-up skiers occasionally turned away on peak days.

The resort in December reversed course on a plan to charge $20 for parking for cars with fewer than three passengers and now offers free RTD bus passes for visitors coming up the canyon from Boulder.

Henceroth said Arapahoe Basin is hoping it can compete in the shifting resort industry by elevating its stand-alone appeal. He said his resort is ready to endure a decline in visitation as it leaves the Epic Pass, but he hopes he can entice Arapahoe Basin loyalists to buy his own pass.

Skier Nathan Hahn makes his way drown a run at Arapahoe Basin on Feb. 9, 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

“I definitely think there’s interest out there for Arapahoe Basin for a whole lot of reasons. Obviously the big resorts are doing great because that’s where the majority of people like to ski,” he said. “But there is an increasing and growing demand for the Lovelands and Eldoras and Arapahoe Basins and Wolf Creeks of the world. Not everyone wants that huge resort experience and we are going to play with that.”

Arapahoe Basin, with its peak at 13,050-feet, typically has one of the longest seasons in North American skiing, with its opening day often arriving in October and lifts turning into May.  

Vail Resorts earlier this season announced it was investing in snowmaking upgrades at Keystone, allowing the resort just down the hill from Arapahoe Basin to be the first to open every ski season, an early-bird perch typically owned by either Arapahoe Basin or Loveland.

Vail also announced it was extending the season at Breckenridge through Memorial Day, giving the resort operator a potentially six- to seven-month ski season at its two Summit County resorts.

On Monday Vail announced a Keystone Plus Pass to replace its Keystone-Arapahoe Basin Pass, with unlimited access to Keystone, spring skiing at Breckenridge and five days at Vail Resorts’ Crested Butte Mountain Resort for $369.

Henceroth said he was open to talking with any other resorts about a pass partnership.

“It’s gotta be the right thing. It has to work for our guests. It has to work for our employees and it has to work for our business,” Henceroth said. “We are not in any hurry to jump into something. It’s going to take several months for us to figure out.”

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